counterfeiting, manufacturing spurious coins, paper money, or evidences of governmental obligation (e.g., bonds) in the semblance of the true. There must be sufficient resemblance to the genuine article to deceive a person using ordinary caution. The offense may be regarded as a special variety of forgery.
The crime affects property but was historically considered to be an interference with the administration of government. Hence, under an early English statute (1350), counterfeiting the king's seal or his gold and silver coinage was a grave crime against the state amounting to high treason and was punishable by death. The statute left unchanged the common-law misdemeanors of counterfeiting copper coinage and passing counterfeit foreign currency. Other early statutes were directed against debasing the coinage by clipping or filing off the edges to sell the metal. By the 19th cent. counterfeiting was considered a felony rather than a form of treason.
The U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to "provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States." Under that power, statutes have been enacted making criminal the counterfeiting of the currency and bonds of the United States, of the evidences of indebtedness (e.g., checks) of the Federal Reserve System, of postage stamps, and of foreign money used for exchange. Under its powers to define and punish offenses of international law and its powers to control interstate and foreign commerce, Congress has passed legislation against the counterfeiting of foreign money and securities within the United States. Nearly every state now has statutes against counterfeiting. Since its establishment in 1865 the U.S. Secret Service has been the primary agency in the combating of counterfeiters in the United States.
To commit the crime of counterfeiting one does not necessarily have to make a whole coin or bill. It may be accomplished by plating coins, by raising the amount of a bill, or by any other alteration calculated to deceive the recipients. To retain counterfeit money or government obligations knowingly is also a criminal offense, regardless of how possession was acquired. The knowing utterance (passing) of counterfeit currency or securities is also criminal.
For the further protection of the currency and of postage stamps, statutes forbid making certain types of photographs (e.g., in color) where there would be danger of deception. In the 1990s, counterfeiters began to create high-quality color prints of paper currency using computer scanning and imaging. The U.S. government and those of other nations responded by redesigning denominations of bills. U.S. bills issued since 1996 include microscopic printing, watermarks, and other security features.
See S. Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters (2012).