# How quickly will government realize that I am printing money?

Usual Joe wakes up in his apartment somewhere in New York, USA. He realizes that on this desk is sitting new printer, which appeared out of nowhere.

Joe tries to press print button and the printer prints sheet of four 100 dollar bills:

Image source: What-if XKCD

He cuts out the bills and cannot see any difference against "usual" paper money in his pocket. Joe calculated that it took about a minute to the printer to print the sheet and to cut out the money.

Image source: What-if XKCD

While sourced What if XKCD says:

Your extra two million bills a year would barely be enough to notice.

I cannot believe it. And neither does Joe. He tried to pay with first 4 bills and all of them were accepted. But Joe does not know mechanics of the printer (and does not want to tinker with it for obvious reasons).

For a moment lets assume that the printer works perfectly with one little flaw: It has 1:100 chance to hit already existing serial number printed on the bill. Otherwise, the bill passes all possible checks for counterfeit money.

The printer is "plot device" now, so it runs on magic and unobtainium. Otherwise we are in "Current world"

How plausible is that Joe will get caught?

• Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Tim B Jan 6 '17 at 16:50

# It Depends

It depends on your spending patterns. For small amount where cash is a common payment method (meals, small good, etc.), the chances are you'll never get caught.

When bills enter general circulation, the origin for the serial numbers are pretty much untraceable unless you attempt to use a bill that's been declared as stolen - the Treasury will track the serial numbers to the point at which they enter circulation (ATM/Bank/Salary/whatever). If a bank is held up and a bill serial number that's involved in that robbery is traced to you, you'll get investigated (and people will wonder about your cash-rich lifestyle).

For larger purchases, you'll need to deposit those bills into a bank or find someone unscrupulous enough to accept a huge roll of bills and not ask you where that money came from.

If the IRS (or whatever the tax gathering authority is in your country) sees that you have a mighty fine house/car, they might start wondering what your income is and whether you're paying your taxes.

You might also be investigated for money laundering.

The larger the amount you spend per transaction, the greater your chances of getting found out.

• See my comment to question about good fake UK pound coins. There are also bad fakes, cast from solder and spray-painted "brass". They're good enough to pass most of the time, until some honest Joe or a bank notices that the paint is wearing off. If you are a petty criminal living on the breadline and never have more than one of your lousy fakes in your pocket at once, you have probably gotten away with boosting your income this way for the past few decades. The new design of coin will stop this (it's a two-part design). – nigel222 Jan 3 '17 at 11:18
• Life will be a lot easier if your printer produces Euro notes, and you move to Germany. Garages won't turn a hair at being given cash for a €300 service, and won't be surprised if you choose to buy a €30.000 car with cash (although they'd prefer some warning for that.) Choosing to rent for life, and paying the rent with cash wouldn't be that unusual either... – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jan 3 '17 at 11:38
• You could always be the person that has change for larger bills and put those bigger denominations in the bank. – David Starkey Jan 3 '17 at 14:35
• @Martin Bonner Wouldn't that be a bit dependent on the actual bank notes being printed? I myself am from a country where, due to dollarization effect, 100€, 200€ and 500€ notes are common, while for lower denominations, we use our local currency. In the north of Germany, my large bank notes weren't very happily accepted, while I had no problems with 50€ notes. – AndrejaKo Jan 3 '17 at 15:01
• @AndrejaKo: Yes of course. My point is that different cultures have very different approaches to cash. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jan 3 '17 at 15:05

How plausible it is that Joe gets caught really boils down to how Joe acts with his new found wealth.

If the machine really does print perfect fakes, he's not going to get caught directly - it won't be a counterfeiting investigation that brings him down. Even if he ran the printing press non-stop, he's not going to put out enough to make a noticeable difference in the money supply, and it's not as if the serial numbers from his fake bills are going to be compared against some government database of bills that have actually printed (a fact that intelligence agencies and other governments rely on when printing their own fakes), so we have basically negligible odds of the printing press operation bringing the Secret Service to Joe's door.

Having said that, it's not actually easy to move large quantities of cash around without someone noticing, and it's probably the tax man that's going to Joe's biggest threat. Joe's either going to need to find a good way to launder large amounts of money (which, in and of itself is a problem that can bring the authorities to Joe's door) or show enough restraint that he's able to fly under the radar, because if the authorities show for another reason, it's safe to assume that they won't take kindly to his magical printing press. A smart Joe would probably use the printing press conservatively to pay his bills, start a business of some sort and set himself up so that several years down the line, he'll be a successful business owner who can live it up without raising eyebrows.

Which, of course, means the odds of Joe getting caught are probably rather high. That level of restraint and patience are pretty rare, and the temptation here is pretty large - the vast majority of people are going to spend too much, live with with too much of a profile, bring the IRS or the cops sniffing around, and end up in jail for their counterfeiting operation, especially considering that the bills are essentially undetectable as fakes.

• Indeed, lots and lots of embezzlers have been caught by suddenly starting to buy expensive cars and other luxury items, which made people around them wonder how they could afford it from their minimum wage jobs as cashiers. – vsz Jan 3 '17 at 16:04
• @vsz Spies, too (of the double-agent variety). – HopelessN00b Jan 3 '17 at 16:12
• Well, well well. This looks like you have some experience with this... :) – RudolfJelin Jan 4 '17 at 17:16
• @RudolfL.Jelínek Uh... why do you mention it? I need to decide whether to refer you to my professional services division, or my lawyer. :) – HopelessN00b Jan 4 '17 at 17:20
• @supercat You'd be surprised. The authorities (in the US, at least, and at this point of time) don't look at currency serial numbers unless they're already suspicious. And even if they did, at the rate currency changes hands and moves around the country, tracking it back to Joe based on a handful of duplicate serial numbers, years later (when the bills wear enough that it's time to destroy them) would be the investigative equivalent of winning the PowerBall. – HopelessN00b Jan 4 '17 at 17:28

You are asking two questions: How fast will government realize that I am printing money? And, how plausible is that Joe will get caught?

As for "How fast will government realize that I am printing money?" it would probably take around 9 years, as that is the average lifespan of a $100 bill. In 9 years, you would print 18,921,600 bills. Since there is a 1 in 100 chance the bills will have a used serial number, there should be 189,216 bills that go back after 9 years and get flagged as counterfeit. As for "And, how plausible is that Joe will get caught?" I agree with @Pete, it will depend on how smart he is. In theory he could print until the US Treasury changes the currency to no longer match the counterfeit bills. • They check the serial numbers for correctness and uniqueness when the bills are destroyed? – JDługosz Jan 3 '17 at 10:33 • @JDługosz - Even if they did, how would a bill at the end of it's life be able to get traced back to the guy printing the notes? How many hands would it have passed through in that time? – user10945 Jan 3 '17 at 11:03 • @Pᴇᴛᴇ The question is "How quickly will government realize that I am printing money?", which does not require that person who is printing is identified, only that they realize money is being printed somewhere. – user20248 Jan 3 '17 at 11:15 • @Ville-ValtteriTiittanen - The last sentence of the question is "How plausible is that Joe will get caught?". There is also the "I" in the subject line. I assume from this that the question is based on whether Joe can be caught and blamed for printing the money, not just that there's extra money in the economy. – user10945 Jan 3 '17 at 11:19 • One would imagine that they scan banknotes in banks to identify localities where the incidence of fakes is higher than the national average, and then start investigating in that locality. If the forger tries to get around this by employing lots of people to distribute his fakes very widely, then someone will talk. I also imagine that the precise details of what the authorities do are highly classified! – nigel222 Jan 3 '17 at 11:23 I don't think that the government will realise that you're printing money by the volume of cash - as XKCD says, it'll hardly make a dent in the economy. What is likely to be the issue is how you launder the money - becoming a regular at the casinos might well be a good idea.(Edit - apparently it isn't, in the USA at least) Unless you have a good and believable reason as to how you got hold of all of the money you now possess, then you might well get caught that way. Your other option of course is to spend it all in pawn shops and buy up a huge quantity of precious metals, gems, etc and then take it all to a non-extradition treaty country, sell your jewellery and live like a king. • Yeah, this. Consider how much money passes into organised crime - particularly drug dealing - yet gets transferred and spent without the Police being able to pin anything on the individuals involved. The real question is how to launder the money effectively. – Jack Aidley Jan 3 '17 at 15:16 • Not that I have a better suggestion, but casinos... may not be the best idea. Money moving through casinos is tracked and monitored pretty closely, as it turns out. If anyone gets suspicious and starts looking, the records and video surveillance at a modern give the government a pretty air-tight money laundering case against you. – HopelessN00b Jan 3 '17 at 16:27 • Casinos are required to file a form with the IRS if a gambler wins over a certain amount (currently$1200-1500 depending on circumstances) meaning its not a good laundering option for that reason in addition to the ones given by HoplessN00b. – Jared Smith Jan 5 '17 at 15:19
• In that case ignore my casino (within the US - may still work in other countries) idea - but the need to have a system of laundering still stands. – Matt Bowyer Jan 5 '17 at 15:21

HopelessN00b's answer inspired a thought in me- with undetectable fakes, the bills aren't the biggest liability of Joe's ruse; they'll never be proven to be false, and once they wear out and get decommissioned, there's little to no chance there's a paper trail leading the bill back to Joe. His largest liability is the printer itself.

Since the bills won't be noticed, his biggest problem is either his own mouth or the mouth of a friend (or anyone who gets into his house). He might tell someone; the plumber might come in and see his magic printer and tell someone; a romantic interest sees an odd printer in the living room while making breakfast, presses a button and now has a lot more information than s/he could ever want about Joe. And Joe has a problem.

To answer the question of "How plausible is it that Joe gets caught?"- the answer to that depends entirely on Joe's character, and not at all on the money he's printing. If he never talks to anyone about anything and never lets anyone in his home, he'll probably never be caught.
On the other hand, if he constantly has parties with many loud people, he's almost guaranteed to be caught. On the other hand, if he has a guilty conscience he may rat himself out, though an amoral Joe could live a perfectly social life and be fine as long as he keeps his printer hidden or doesn't let people into his house

• Nice idea, but how does his answer the question of "how plausible is it that Joe will get caught?" – JDSweetBeat Jan 3 '17 at 16:39
• @DJMethaneMan sorry, I sometimes get carried on a thought train and forget to post an answer to the posed question. I've added one now. – Delioth Jan 3 '17 at 17:05
• So what your saying is that the first thing Joe should do is purchase a shipping container and stash it somewhere remote ... and only collect the bills once every few months. – CaffeineAddiction Jan 5 '17 at 15:56

Since you've said,

It has 1:100 chance to hit already existing serial number printed on the bill. Otherwise, the bill passes all possible checks for counterfeit money.

the chances he'll get caught are GREATLY reduced.

In fact, I'd say the chances of getting caught were practically non-existent. Since the bill "passes all possible checks for counterfeit money" it would be impossible to say which note was fake, even if the duplicate was spotted.

The only thing that would give him away would be shops in the same area paying these mysteriously good duplicate serial number notes into their banks. (Obviously they won't be given out as change, so they will always be paid into their banks every week, where they will be checked to see if any are counterfeit.)

Fortunately banks are highly unlikely to check for "duplicate" serial numbers, as there's zero reason to believe it isn't the original. (They're more likely to search for serial numbers known to have been stolen.) And since the notes are otherwise flawless, there's no reason to think they would EVER be flagged.

So Joe's chances, in the situation you have outlined, are next to perfect for him. Provided he's not investigated for money laundering, he will be fine, and good to spend the money anywhere he likes.

Joe will be caught as soon as he starts to trust that he will not be caught.

Joe is a fairly intelligent person, so at the beginning he will be careful about what he spends his money on.

Soon he will realize that there is no way to find out that it is false money, and if it is ever detected that there is a duplicate, it will not be possible to relate to him. So he starts to be more daring spending money.

400 dollars a minute, 24.000$per hour... well worth going out to celebrate!!! And that's how the things started to mess up.... As others have answered, the government is unlikely to notice Joe's printing operation by itself. Since the bills are undetectable as fakes, they won't notice that there are fakes in circulation (they might find the 1/100 duplicate serial numbers, but by the time they do there will be no way to trace it back to Joe). Joe's biggest problem will be in actually using the money. The whole reason the US mint does not print bills larger than$100 is because they figured out that the only people who would regularly need larger bills are criminals. Legitimate business is done through electronic transfer and actual paychecks are done by direct deposit or check. No realtor or car dealership are going to accept a wheelbarrow full of cash without raising a lot of questions. If he suddenly becomes a regular at his bank depositing large sums of bills, there are going to be even more questions. Banks actively watch for suspicious activity like this. The authorities are going to want to know how some random guy living in a New York apartment suddenly came into so much cash. This is going to trigger an audit and investigation that will eventually lead to the Secret Service, FBI, and/or IRS getting a search warrant for his apartment. How quickly that happens depends on how stupid he is with the money.

Joe's only chance is to spend modestly and spread the money around enough to keep any one person from getting suspicious. He'll have to keep his day job. If he was having trouble making rent each month, he can probably remedy that, but not much more.

• It is actually fairly easy to find a shady car dealer to accept your cash, but the real problem is that you simply cannot legally make cash transactions above a certain threshold (I believe, $10,000) without triggering reporting requirements on the recipient's end. – Kevin Keane Jan 5 '17 at 8:13 • I have paid for my last two cars in cash, both over 10k. I am in the US. No one said a word. This is as made up as the printer... sorry. – blankip Jan 6 '17 at 7:18 • @KevinKeane Did you really put "shady" and "legally" in the same sentence? Those people are generally pretty good at avoiding legal restrictons :) There's no way to legally buy non-taxed diesel where I'm from, and yet there's plenty of people who don't pay the tax. Apparently, you just need the right kind of "friend", and tada - your fuel costs are halved. – Luaan Jan 6 '17 at 11:36 This is to help Joe to succeed. Joe needs to do laundering. However, he has an advantage. He doesn't need to move the money, moving the printer will not draw any attention to him. An easy laundering method would be the following: Joe should go to a country where you could get precious gems directly from dealers. He should sneak in the printer to, say, Republic of South Africa. Print dollars, find a guy to accept his cash. Sneak in the diamonds. Sell them as family heirlooms. Obviously this will work only once. Another method would be paying larger sums of money while showing officers that he paid less. This will keep him in business. As long as he doesn't want to be next Bill Gates, he could keep this business to live an easy life. • or he could start a "charity organization" and say that people donates anonymously and use this money for the "benefit of people" (maybe 10%). – k3y4r Jan 4 '17 at 9:50 • You could go for gems or art ... but bitcoins and a bitpay.com/card might work out pretty well too – CaffeineAddiction Jan 5 '17 at 16:17 I've read a novel once, similar to "Groundhog Day". The difference was the guy belonging was "reset" so he only had the amount of money on him he had when he went to sleep. So he had the same bills the whole time. So he devised three ways of "laundering" them. One was to make a small deposit in the pawn shops the same amount every day so after a while he taken out not 5 20 dollar bills with the same number but one 100$. He figured out the money he give to clerk will be spend on the same day so they can't compare them.

Second was to buy stuff and then return it with money transferred to his account (the money was not there but the shops and bank had the papers to prove the cashback was made).

And third one was just to ask random strangers to change money into some kind of cash tokens (gift cards, parking tickets, checks) and then use those to accumulate the money.

Further more if the chance is 1:100 it means that in every 10 thousand there will be 100 duplicates. So he could just sort the numbers himself and leave one of the twins in the drawer.

• «money in» ? I wonder if you’re missing some words here? – JDługosz Jan 3 '17 at 10:35
• The duplicated numbers are not between two if Joe's printed bills, they're between one of his prints and one of the real bills printed by Treasury. Joe's odds of having any repeats in even a million of his own bills are vanishingly small, sorting for them would be pointless. – Nij Jan 3 '17 at 11:39
• So the chances are even smaller. Because what would need to trigger Treasury would require two of the same bill to be in the same time in some agency that mark the numbers. Because the two bills are identical there's no way of saying that the one in NY is fake because there is identical one in LA – SZCZERZO KŁY Jan 3 '17 at 11:46

One plausible way to evade detection I don't see mentioned is to turn nomad.

If you are moving around a lot and spreading out where you spend the money, there is a lot less chance for anyone to notice that you have too much of it. Particularly if you hit touristy type destinations and make sure your purchases are scaled such that providing change is not a burden on the merchant. Play it right and you build up a nice stock of legitimate small bills to compliment the unending 100s.

Forking over a hundred for a $75 ski package at a ski resort in Vail is unlikely to raise any eyebrows. Then two weeks later you head over to LA and hang out on the beach. The folks you spend money with in California are not going to know you just spent a couple weeks living it up in Colorado, and it is not unheard of for people on vacation to work with cash as a means of staying on budget. Does Joe have to stay in the US? Perhaps he can move to a country that won't look too closely at him if the right bureaucrats are greased, where he can pay for most things in cash and import whatever else he wants through the black market. In that case, he can live a pretty opulent lifestyle and the US will just assume he's a drug lord, if they notice him at all. Joe will get caught pretty quickly. Most merchants don't spend \$100 bills. They just deposit them as they do with checks. Most cash registers don't have spots for \$100 bills. And since most people spend cash fairly consistently, all of Joe's \$100 bills will go to the same (more or less) merchants. Since all merchants will deposit the money in the same banks, statistically, it will be easy to track the money back to the the merchants. Now if Joe was not living in NY, but travelling a lot, that would make tracking him much more difficult. Again, I am accepting the plot premise that the bills are printed to perfectly match what would be printed by the mint.

While most people seem to believe you would get caught with the money laundering ... I think you could actually make it work.

So the first thing most people are talking about is that you would get caught for suddenly being flush with money with no way to claim the income. However, that is with the very large assumption that you are planning on spending the US currency in country. There are rules and regulations about moving large bags of cash in and out of country ... but if you moved the printer out of country you could spend it rather easily. US currency is widely accepted in a lot of other country's. You could go on vacation for the rest of your life and use random currency exchanges all over the world and no one would ever question you wanting to exchange 5k USD for the equiv of the local currency of the country you are in.

Furthermore if you did want to stay in the US it wouldn't be that far fetched that you are "working" as a remote contractor for a business in a foreign country. You could setup operations in another country laundering the money and earn a monthly salary ... pay taxes on it ... and fly completely under the radar for a very long time depending on the country your "employer" is in.

Even if you didn't want to ever leave the US, you could avoid spending the actual printed bills by exchanging them for Bitcoins and making use of a Visa backed Bitcoin Credit Card. I don't think it would be too terribly hard to exchange a large bag of 100$for the equiv in Bitcoins if you where willing to pay a 50% "processing" fee ... and lets be real, if you could make 1 mill a year with zero chance of ever being caught ... the "processing" fee would be worth every penny. Joe needs to focus on gold. It is quite possibly the easiest way to launder money and surely the easiest way to keep wealth in case the magic machine disappears or malfunctions. Where as precious gems, paintings, artifacts, whatever are easily traceable and by and large there would be word out on who purchased something like that. Gold just isn't that interesting and it melts. Meaning that Joe can stash away huge chunks of gold in a bank (several of course) or even a forest. The problem is if Joe spends most of his life printing money he will surely be caught because that is just a shitload of money and there is no way to hide it. It isn't about the "money". If the fakes are "real" fakes then there isn't much anyone can do save for watching him print from his machine. (I am assuming he puts machine in safe and it self destructs if someone breaks into the safe). So really the issue isn't the money or the government finding fake bills. It is what does he buy to not draw attention from the government or even worse some low life thug. Any kind of laundering using "friends" or "experts" will certainly lend Joe to more risk plus he still has the same issue... what the hell does he buy. That leads us back to gold. Joe needs to be an expert in gold. He needs to move to a large city and eventually open up some sort of jewelry or pawn store. He needs to befriend secondary market sellers. He then needs to start melting all the gold down. Joe then needs a "plan" to find the gold. He can do anything from opening his own mining operation, he can act like he found a stash of bars, he can take up a life panning, whatever. It just needs to be somewhat plausible. Not even straight out believable because the fact is no one can disprove his bars came from something else... gold is gold. It is very plausible that Joe will get caught. US currency uses a paper made of a blend of 75% cotton and 25% linen with added red and blue synthetic fibers (see this PDF for more information on security features of the$100 bill, such as an embedded thread that glows pink in UV light). This blend of paper will feel different from standard home/office printer papers, which are made from wood pulp. Furthermore, US currency uses the intaglio printing process, which results in slightly raised ink on the surface of the paper. This process also causes the paper to be slightly thinner, due to the pressure used to press the ink into the paper. The raised ink also affects the feel of the paper. Bank tellers are trained to recognize counterfeits by feel, so Joe would need a source of rag paper and hope that his mystery printer can mimic the results of the intaglio printing process. Otherwise he would quickly be found out.

Using existing serial numbers actually doesn't seem to be a problem unless the person handling the money has two bills with the same serial number in hand. In fact, not using existing serial numbers would likely mean the serial number is out of the range used for $100 bills. And while the clerk at a store where people are likely to buy over one hundred dollars worth of goods might not recognize that the serial number isn't legitimate, the teller at a bank will likely know the range. As others have pointed out, it is how Joe spends the money that will be the biggest cause of whether he gets caught or not. The more he uses his counterfeits, the greater the chance that someone will recognize them as counterfeit. If he tries to pass the bills off to family, friends, or coworkers, they may very well remember that it was Joe who loaned or gave them the bad bill if it is discovered as counterfeit. In fact, Joe would be less likely to be caught if he counterfeited$1 bills as there are not as many security features to deal with. Granted, Joe would make considerably less (and depending on the cost of materials may end up losing money), but he would also have other benefits. Lower denomination bills are scrutinized less, which means a greater chance of successfully passing off the bills. There are more places to spend lower denomination bills without raising suspicions, which gives Joe more avenues for passing the bills. And making less money through the counterfeiting operation would reduce the temptation to splurge and, thus, lowers the risk that Joe's spending habits reveal his operation.

• "Joe would need a source of rag paper and hope that his mystery printer can mimic the results of the intaglio printing process" - don't forget that the printer works on magic and unobtanium. – Umberto P. Jan 4 '17 at 20:55
• @UmbertoP. Right, but he didn't say it alters the chemical makeup of the paper put into it. In fact, we are only ever told that the bills look like legitimate bills, and so pointing out the fact that the paper used in actual currency is different from regular printer paper and that the printing process is different are important. Someone armed with iodine solution can determine rather easily if wood pulp paper is being used as the iodine reacts with the starch in wood pulp to leave a mark, but does not leave a mark on rag paper. – Direlda Jan 4 '17 at 21:59
• No, he says that the currency it produces "passes all possible checks for counterfeit money". That would include the feel of the paper and the iodine test. My guess is that the unobtanium and magic that powers the printer transmogrifies the paper to be correct. – Seth R Jan 4 '17 at 23:06
• @SethR I must have misread that sentence, then. But he does also say, "He cuts out the bills and cannot see any difference against 'usual' paper money in his pocket." But then Joe would likely not be found out at all for counterfeiting, even if he were investigated for his spending habits, as no one would suspect a normal looking printer of producing that quality of counterfeits. And, if he were smart, he could pass off the flawed bills as having originated from somewhere else, since people like Joe wouldn't be expected to know the ranges of good serial numbers to check the bill against. – Direlda Jan 5 '17 at 0:25

The government acts like Mafia, or big Gangs. If you're poor, they don't bother you much. If you're rich, they will want their cut and will do anything to get it.

With the above being said, the government will start investigating your source of income and whether they're getting their cut/tax or not. So the chances depends on the individual's intelligence.

If the individual is intelligent enough to convince the government that the income is legal, and that they're getting their cut, then the chances are extremely low (i.e. money laundering).

If the individual doesn't care and just wants to spend money, and doesn't make any effort to deceive the government, then the chances of getting caught is extremely high.