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Criminal counterfeiting involves the production of fakes that are then presented in the place of genuine items. While counterfeiting can involve violations of both state and federal law, and most prosecutions for counterfeiting are done at the state level, counterfeit operations involving currency and other documents tied to the U.S. government are generally federal cases. In addition to being illegal in all 50 states, counterfeiting is one of only three original federal crimes the framers mentioned in the Constitution.

This article provides an overview of counterfeiting and related issues.

What Are Common Counterfeit Products?

Counterfeit products come in various forms. Many people have been exposed to knock-off name-brand shoes, purses, jewelry, and other desired but expensive items. It is against the law to produce and sell unlicensed brand products.

States often punish these types of counterfeiting crimes as a form of theft. Fraud and trademark laws might also come into play, but prosecutions tend to vary from state to state and case to case.

Although counterfeit items often involve forged art or other commercial products such as handbags or shoes, these are not the types of counterfeits prosecuted at the federal level. Currency, both cash and coins, is largely the focus of anti-counterfeiting efforts by the federal government.

Is Buying Counterfeit Goods Against the Law?

Many people have bought fake fancy purses or other fashion items. Whether they knowingly do so or not, those who buy counterfeit items are generally not the targets of anti-counterfeiting measures.

Anti-counterfeit laws target the traffickers of replicas. Going after every individual consumer who buys a knock-off watch isn't a wise use of the government's time. Finding and prosecuting the larger operations making and profiting from the sale of counterfeit goods is the goal.

What Are the More Complex Forms of Counterfeiting?

Federal counterfeiting law forbids the production, possession, and use of fake documents that are used to defraud the U.S. government and others. Counterfeits that are covered by federal counterfeit crime laws include:

  • Currency (coins and banknotes)
  • Securities
  • Letters patent (documents purporting to own intellectual property)
  • Ship's papers
  • Postage stamps
  • Military passes, permits, discharge papers, and other documents
  • Legal documents such as deeds, power of attorney documents, certificates, receipts, contracts, and other documents for sending and receiving intending to enable a person to claim any sum of money from the United States or its officers
  • Government documents, including the signatures of judges and court officers

Federal law includes a comprehensive list of prohibited counterfeit or forged instruments.

Associated Counterfeiting Crimes

Producing or trying to pass off counterfeit goods or currency may lead to criminal fraud charges or violation of intellectual property rights. Specific counterfeiting charges may also include:

  • Possession of counterfeits;
  • Utterance, passing a counterfeit as a legitimate document;
  • Possession of the tools for producing counterfeits;
  • Removing or altering motor vehicle identification numbers;
  • Pasting together parts of notes, bills, or other instruments to make a fraudulent one; and
  • Making, selling, possessing, or using slugs, tokens, or other counterfeit money substitutes.

Penalties for Counterfeiting

Federal penalties for specific kinds of counterfeiting vary, but counterfeiting U.S. securities carries a potential fine of up to $250,000 and a maximum of 25 years in federal prison. Penalties are increased where the crime resulted in financial gain or another party suffering a financial loss.

Penalties may be up to double the amount gained or lost. Issuing false securities is punishable by fines and a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Forging postage stamps carries possible fines and imprisonment for not more than five years.

Lesser counterfeit offenses generally lead to lesser charges and punishment. For example, someone who tries to use a fake $100 bill is likely to face state charges and lower penalties. Trying to pass off a fake check is a similar example.

How Do Authorities Try To Prevent Counterfeiting?

Many of us have seen how cashiers will look at $100 bills before accepting them in a store. They are checking that the money is real. This is an example of how the public works in large part to help identify and prevent counterfeiting on a large scale.

Law enforcement agencies rely on the public to report suspected counterfeit activity. What should the public look out for while navigating the marketplace?

According to campaigns such as Go For Real by the Unites States Patent and Trademark Office, the following are helpful questions to consider about a product:

  • If buying online, look at the written product description. Is it full of spelling or grammar errors?
  • Is the price of the product a lot lower than it should be? If it seems too good to be true, the product might not be the real thing.
  • Does the packaging look off somehow? Does it seem cheaper or tampered with?
  • If buying online, do the pictures look like true marketing? Do the images look off-brand or like stock photos?
  • Do you know this product is hard to find but now see it is readily available?

These are just a few examples of what to look for. The above examples are more along the lines of consumer-related knock-offs. The identification and prevention of false government-related counterfeiting is more complex and generally happens over time by law enforcement through close monitoring.

Charged With Counterfeiting Crimes? Reach Out to a Criminal Defense Attorney

Counterfeit charges and other federal criminal prosecutions are notoriously difficult to fight. If you've been charged with counterfeiting, you'll need the assistance of a qualified lawyer to prepare the best possible defense or help you broker a reasonable plea deal. Contact a local criminal defense attorney today.

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