I don't understand why people in 3rd world countries don't try to counterfeit the US dollar. If you're in Zimbabwe or Syria the government presumably isn't going to stop you and it just needs to be passable in commercial tests. Then using them in various (possibly black market venues) until they are in normal circulation and the money launderers are left with usable money or goods seems like a profitable strategy.

What from US or international-community prevents this strategy occurring on a large scale, for example by rogue nations or large criminal enterprises?

  • Just to make sure, are you asking why those countries aren't trying that? Or are you asking about people in those countries?
    – JJJ
    Sep 11, 2019 at 1:47
  • Both of course,
    – user28103
    Sep 11, 2019 at 2:18
  • 1
    In those countries the shops do not accepts payments in US dollars.
    – Adriano
    Sep 11, 2019 at 3:30
  • 2
    And when those retail agents which sold the iMacs in exchange for counterfeit currency tried to turn those dollar bills into electronic currency by depositing them at the bank, and find out they cant because the bank runs decent tests, how do you think they will be able to buy replacement iMac stock? A big reason for using a foreign currency is to be able to buy foreign goods, and if you cant do that because no one trusts the banknotes in your country....
    – user16741
    Sep 11, 2019 at 4:03
  • I reworded the question because I think there's a good answer (which I'd like to provide) and it's an important question. After all, the USD is one of, if not the most, important currency that's generally accepted in most international venues, from many lawful embassies around the world to many illicit drug traders, the US dollar is accepted the world over.
    – JJJ
    Sep 11, 2019 at 10:22

3 Answers 3


If counterfeiting US currency (or Euros &c) became common in a country, merchants would

A) Invest in better counterfeit detection methods;

B) Refuse to accept foreign currency because of the risk;

C) Perhaps hire enforcers to track down the passers of counterfeits and show them the error of their ways :-)

Indeed, C is what we do in the US, except that the enforcers are called Treasury agents, and are paid by the government.

  • 1
    The United States Secret Service, which is tasked with combatting counterfeiting, was part of the Treasury Department but was moved to the Department of Homeland Security, so the last sentence should be DHS agents. Sep 11, 2019 at 16:30

High-quality counterfeits of high denomination US dollar bills are known as superdollars. Wikipedia's page on the superdollar says:

A superdollar (also known as a superbill or supernote) is a very high quality counterfeit United States one hundred-dollar bill,1 alleged by the U.S. Government to have been made by unknown organizations or governments. In 2011, government sources stated that these "counterfeit bills were in worldwide circulation from the late 1980s until at least July 2000" in an extradition court case.

It lists a number of sources, including criminals in a country that's friendly with the US and state-sponsored production by an enemy of the US.

Criminals in the UK

Quoting from the same Wikipedia page:

In 2005, British criminals, Anatasios Arnaouti and four others, were convicted of conspiracy to make counterfeit currency in the United Kingdom. They were arrested in 2002 after an operation that involved the U.S. Secret Service. The counterfeit currency recovered included $3.5 million worth of $100 bills, which Bank of England experts said were of excellent quality. The police stated that "The potential to undermine the economy of the UK and US was very significant."

The example isn't as described in the question (because the UK is friendly with the US), but quote from the police is a good answer to the question. Such criminal enterprise is likely to undermine the economy of the country it happens in as well. First of all because those bills may be spent in the country, but then be taken out of circulation at some point thus harming businesses where they have been spent.

Additionally, it's generally undesirable to have criminal enterprises in your country because they are hard to control, they become powerful and take part in other illicit practices (e.g. production of narcotics, human trafficking, etc.).

The latter is exactly what the Dutch police is warning for (see quote below) with regards to Dutch narcotics producers, it's not in relation to counterfeiting to currency, but having a lot of money at hand in criminal organisations may have similar effects on society regardless of origin.

Quote from the Guardian (see full article for details)

The paper from the Dutch police union, based on interviews with 400 detectives, adds: “The Netherlands fulfils many characteristics of a narco-state. Detectives see a parallel economy emerge.”

Another counterfeit operation was investigated by Vice in Lima, Peru, the episode is available on Youtube.

State-backed efforts

The difficulty in the previous argument can obviously be ignored if a government has a strict control of society. That's not that uncommon, many dictatorial countries can achieve that. The difficulty with many of those dictatorships is that they have some relation with the United States. By actively promoting forfeiting of the US dollar they will jeopardize that relationship if the US learns about it. And the US has quite some soft power to deal with that (e.g. reduce aid to the country, less cooperation, get the international community to do the same, etc.).

Then the interesting bit is when the relationship with the US is already bad. After all, if there is no relationship or an actively hostile relationship then there's little to reduce. A good example of that is North Korea, again quoting from the aforementioned Wikipedia page:

It has been confirmed that North Korea has passed off superdollars (Korean: kattalio) in various countries. The counterfeit bills also circulate both within North Korea and around its border with China. There is, however, some doubt about the reliability of North Korean defectors' claims, on which the United States partially bases its accusations, along with South Korean intelligence sources.

So there are some indications that North Korea may have produced high-quality US dollars. It's obvious that there are still difficulties for North Korea in doing this. First of all it's hard to spend them, the Wikipedia article mentions deals with other larger countries that aren't friendly with the US anyway and may not be aware that the money is counterfeit. Spending them elsewhere on some significant scale is hard, few countries will deal with North Korea trying to pay, let's say a few million US dollar, in cash.

The way this might be done is by pretending they're not North Korea (e.g. just criminals) to avoid sanctions and even then it's hard. The Guardian recently had an article on how North Korea imports goods and it's quite a hassle (I'm not claiming this was done with superdollars, it's merely an illustration of the lengths they have to go to get some simple trade done):

Dutch customs officials at the port of Rotterdam have seized 90,000 bottles of vodka believed to be destined for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and his army chiefs.


The Russian vodka, contained in 3,000 boxes, had been recorded as being due for unloading in China, via the ports of Hamburg and Rotterdam.

When officers sought to retrieve the container from the ship’s hull, it was found to be concealed and hemmed in by the fuselage of an aircraft also due to be exported to China.

Despite concerns about damaging the aircraft, the Dutch ministry of affairs ordered the container’s removal.

Initial investigations heightened suspicions that the haul was to be taken to Pyongyang, Dutch authorities said.

Vice also has a more in-depth article on North Korea's counterfeiting operations.

  • +1. My comment to the (at the time closed) question has two more links that you might want to edit into your answer. Sep 11, 2019 at 18:13
  • @DenisdeBernardy thanks, I added them as links. To summarise them in full is quite a lot of work and you get a much better idea by watching those videos in full. In particular getting an idea of how much work goes into making them and the difficulty of passing them off is better understood in those videos.
    – JJJ
    Sep 11, 2019 at 18:31

Okay, so we need some background, so lets first get something out of the way

How currencies work

First, all currencies have no intrinsic value and merely represent standardization of value between two objects. In a barter system, I might sell you apples for oranges but we have a disagreement on the value of the two fruit because we are literally and figuratively comparing apples to oranges, which are different things that don't have a lot of common points between them. So, we use currency as means to exchange value. If I know how much it costs me to make one apple in a measure of currency to apples, and you know how much it costs to make an orange in a measure of currency, we can exchange the currencies for the fruits rather than the apple for the orange

So how do we measure the value of a currency? Well, the issuing government makes currencies to a set value. Currencies value are fixed or "pegged" to another currency or commodity. This means that a nation's currency (lets say Australia's fictional currency Dollary-doo ($D)) to another stronger currency (like the United States Dollar ($)) for this discussion) will try to achieve a ratio of their currency to their peg. In the case of commodities, the same principal applies, but instead of a currency, they peg the value to a thing that people buy on the world market and has intrinsic value and cannot be mass produced. Precious metals, such as gold, or energy commodities, such as oil, are often used for these values. Here the currency is "backed" by the commodity, and the nation uses a "[commodity] standard". With those terms defined, lets show how this works with something with a similar small value, a single purchase from McDonald's Dollar Menu.

Lets say that Australia's dollary-doo is pegged to the USD at a reate of 2 dollary-doos to One USD (2$D:$1) and $1 dollar can purchase one item on the Dollar Menu at McDonalds. This meas that in Australia McDonald's will charge 2$D for the same item American's buy for $1. Here, we have a currency peg to a Dollar Menu backed currency. If McDonald's changes the price of a Dollar Menu item to $1.20 because market forces need them to change the price, then the USD loses value and because Australia Dollary-Doo is fixed to the USD, it too loses value, now costing 2.40$D to buy a dollar menu item. To fix this, the U.S.'s Central Bank (The Federal Reserve) will start selling it's reserve of Dollar Menu items, thus bringing the item back down to the price of $1. This flood of dollars fixes the problem in the U.S. but in Australia, the Dollar-doo is still loosing value... it's not a common value to the Burger, but the Dollar, remember... purchasing Burgars is still costing them 2.40$D, but there's now more burgers and less dollars in the world... so Australia's Central Bank (the Bankery-Doo? shrugs) will start releasing more dollars for less Dollary-Doos. And other countries around the world will similarly adjust their exchange rates for buying back or selling more of their currency and commodities to keep as close to their set ratios as possible.

Now, that's how exchange rates mostly work... there are a few things that further complicate the matter. For example, the USD hasn't been a fixed currency since the mid 1970s, when it left the gold-standard, and is now a "Float" or "Fiat" Currency. This means that the value of the dollar literally represents the "Full faith and credit of the United States Government." If you'r not a fan of the United States government, this may seem like the dollar has no value at all, but what it means is that the United States economy is so strong, the dollar has value because you have to do buisness with the United States either directly (through trade) or indirectly (by doing buisness with nations who in turn will do buisness with the United State). Think of it as rather than the Dollar being on a Burger Standard, we instead peg the value of the Burger to the Dollar (and yes, there is a real life Big Mac Index that's used to show the price of a Big Mac in various countries). It's also helped that the USD isn't the only floating currency in town (though it is a popular one) and other currencies are tied to strong economies that let their economic might speak for their currencies' value (some other currencies include the Euro (EU), The Pound Sterling (UK), the Yen (Japan), the Rupee (India), and the Australian Dollar (not the Dollary-Doo, no one has faith in that). You might decide you don't like the United States, and peg to the Euro, but the Euro economy and the USD economy do interact frequently.

The other issue is that you don't have to peg to one currency, and can instead have a "basket" currency, which means you'r pegging to two or more currencies and trying to keep yours in balance with both of those (sorta demonstrated by the Dollary-doo to Burger example).

Suffice to say that currency exchange has a lot of extra details that will overcomplicate what you need to understand about a currency used by any nation and requires math and economics theories that you could write books about. I am not doing that here (partially because I'm not sure I understand all of it). What you need to know is that in a vacuum, currency has no intrinsic value. A bank note is just a piece of paper and a coin is just a disk of metal. It's value comes from setting it to another thing that does have value. This is usually your own economy, another currency, or another item on the market. Supply and demand change the values of things and thus the value of one currency to another.

Back to the Question

So why was that important? Because as a Float Currency only works if the issuing government can guarentee it. Currency's value is governed, like any other commodity, by supply (how much is there available to buyers) and demand (how much people want it). Too much supply and there will be no demand which causes inflation (Too many people have too many dollars, but the amount of burgers are running out means the Dollar cannot buy as many Burgers and the Burger price rises) while not enough supply but plenty of demand means deflation (there aren't enough dollars to buy all the burgers, so the Burgar price falls). Governments are then motivated to keep their currencies competitive with other nations and will carefully look at the markets and release currency for currency on ratios they want to control for and avoid going full Wiemar Republic (never go full Wiemar Republic). If they have to issue new currencies, they do so only in limited supplies based on market forces, thus avoiding inflation or deflation... not just at home but aboard. Both ways in excess can be devastating. And if a big engine of world economics slows down, that's an international economy issue, not a national one.

One way of control is that governments will only accept their legal tender. If someone is counterfiting U.S. dollars in a foerign economy, the U.S. can't arrest them... but that money will find it's way into the exchange of currencies... and the U.S. Fed won't buy back currency it did not issue... thus the counterfit is worthless to the Central Bank that holds it (because the value is based on the U.S. saying it's real money and accepting it in transactions). So the central bank of a foreign nation won't accept the fake bill because it's the same as giving them monopoly money... they can't use it. So it's not worth giving their legal tender in the same amount for your fake bill. You can try to buy a burger with it, but the burger puts that money in the bank too... so they want nothing to do with it.

In fact, if it becomes a big problem for your nation, the currency issuer will just stop buying your currency, which, is bad because you can't adjust your exchange rate if your a peg, and floating currency requires you to have an economy that we can trust is good... another floating currency calling you a damn dirty counterfitter will cause other nations to lose faith that the currency they buy from you is valuable. Now... without the ability to compete with other exchanges, your dollars and cents are now paper and pogs... and it could be worse... paper and pogs might be worth more than than your currency. You've just gone full Wiemar Republic (Never go full Wiemar Republic) (and yes, the currency of the Weimar Republic (The Deutsch Mark) was so worthless, that one story tells of how a woman took a wheelbarrow full of Marks to the Market to buy bread and while shopping, left the cash out of sight... she turned around and was horrified to find a thief had robbed her... to the tune of wheelbarrow... the bills were left lying in the street, as the thief dumped it out to make a speedy get away.).

By the way, this is one of many reasons why North Korea's economy is so poor. I'm fuzy on the nature of the events, but North Korea was able to get it's hands on the equipment used by the United States to make USD and tried to flood the market with illegal "super-counterfit bills" that were so much like the real deal, the Banks couldn't tell the difference. The U.S. responded that they wouldn't take any cash that passed into or out of North Korea... and since one has the largest share of economic wealth in the world, and the other's currency was so worthless that, for a time, snack-cakes replaced it as currency (I am not making this up, a freaking moon pie was a more reliable medium of trade in North Korea for a brief period of time), and it didn't take long for the world's markets to make the decision as to which economy they were not gonna trade with. Even China, North Korea's most economically powerful friend, still wanted the USD more than the moon pie.

Similarly, the Confederate States of America's economy tanked and in part lead to their loss in the U.S. Civil War. They relied on Cotten making them invaluable to foreign markets. However, they couldn't leave port due to bloc aids by the Union and Demand skyrocketed, making the limited supply of other content producing nations much more valuable, or less expensive then getting it from the South, as the foreign markets had to pay a higher price, both economically and morally. Those who didn't care how the cotton was produced, so long as it was cheap could no longer buy it for cheap and those who cared about how cotten was produce didn't want to buy cheap if it meant condoning slavery. The south, desperate for cash to fund the war, saw prices of things increase both because the couldn't import cheap goods, and their currency wasn't able to keep up with market changes. It also didn't help that the printing of Confederate Dollars was done on the cheap meaning that the Union could flood the market with counterfeits, further ruining the economy, to such a degree that their counterfeiting was often detected because the fake bills looked realer than the real bills. Hard to have "Full faith and credit" in the Confederate army when your currency looks like it was counterfeited and people use the realistic stuff... which is "worthless". The economic impact was so bad that the states that made the Confederacy are still suffering from the damage to this day, 158 years after the Confederacy ceased existence.

Russia is also still realing from their bad exchange rate of precious metals to Rupals that caused an economic nightmare in World War I! Their exchange rate was 1 Rupal : 1 unit of precious metal, so when the economy started to falter, the started using their metal reserves to buy back Rupals... which if you don't see a problem with that, you give me one dollar in USD and I'll give you a dollar in Monopoly Money and then you go buy me something off the McDonald's Dollar Menu and I'll give you a dollar in exchange for that purchase... and if you're still lost, Russia buying the monopoly money.

In both cases, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems" is certainly true when the money is losing value... but everything else isn't. And the realy danger is that a few days under a bad economic choice can take decades of recovery if you're really really good about fixing the problem... and to outsiders looking in, your claim of economic acumen of that caliber will only remind us of just how we got into this mess in the first place. Tsarist Russia collapsed because of their financial mismanagement... Several Confederate States were ready to succeed from the Confederacy and only stopped when the Union won the war and solved the confedercy's economic woes in a fashion that is akin to how vets solve the issue of a broken leg for a horse.


Zimbabwe and Syria might not like the United States Government... but, like everyone else in the global economy there own currency has no value unless it's fixed to the value of other things and they will likely peg it to another nation's currency and exchange all sorts currencies, not just their own, to keep the two currencies close in value and this means their money will somewhere in the exchange market, will get a valuation in USD. If the US isn't going to take currencies that are fake, it's your interest not to take worthless paper that looks like real dollar bills. You don't have to enforce U.S. laws against counterfitting and alert the United States, but you're not helping yourself if you buy too much fake at the same rate as real currency, even if the fake currency isn't your own. You're still paying too much for it's real value and thus, inflating your currency faster than another economy. While you're free to hate the United States, most nations agree with some of the U.S. economic policy, specifically the part best summed up as "We want those dolla dolla bills, y'all".

You must log in to answer this question.