Mention counterfeiting, and people think of counterfeit money, often U.S. dollars. Indeed, the U.S. Secret Service in 1865 was formed in part to investigate the rise in counterfeit currency of all kinds. But counterfeiting laws go much further than money issues.

Criminal counterfeiting also involves the production of fake products that are presented in the place of genuine items. Counterfeiting can involve violations of both state and federal law.

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 crimes and related issues.

What Does the Law Say About Counterfeit Products?

Counterfeit products come in various forms. Many people have been exposed to items they suspect to be counterfeit in the marketplace. Think of the pop-up sidewalk merchants that appear to have the latest name-brand shoes, purses, jewelry, and other desired but expensive items. It may not always be easy to tell when you have a counterfeit product that infringes on the trademark rights of the original item.

Trademark Infringement

It's against the law to produce and sell unlicensed brand products. To enforce a trademark, the owner brings a civil action, often in federal court. The plaintiff then must demonstrate that:

  1. They own the valid trademark;
  2. That its mark has priority over the defendant; and
  3. That the defendant's mark is likely to cause consumers confusion over the source or sponsorship of the goods or services offered under the mark

If the plaintiff wins their case, the court may issue an injunction ordering the defendant to stop their activity. The plaintiff may also recover damages, including the defendant's profits and the costs of the action.

States may punish counterfeiting in fake products under their theft statutes. Fraud and trademark laws might also come into play. Criminal prosecutions tend to vary based on state law and local law enforcement resources.

Federal Counterfeit Crimes

Federal prosecutors rarely address crimes involving counterfeit items like forged art or commercial products like handbags or shoes. They focus on larger-scale criminal offenses, often involving counterfeit currency. They may also assist local prosecutors with cases involving a single counterfeit bill or a small amount of fake money.

The Secret Service still investigates federal crimes related to counterfeit currency, both cash and coins. At 18 U.S.C. Section 471, the counterfeiting statute provides that "whoever, with intent to defraud, falsely makes, forges, counterfeits, or alters any obligation or other security of the United States" shall face a fine and up to 20 years in federal prison.

Other federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), investigate illegal trafficking in counterfeit goods. They may focus on goods that present a danger to U.S. consumers' health or safety.

Is Buying Counterfeit Goods Against the Law?

Many people have bought fake fancy purses or other fashion items. Sometimes, these products are counterfeits. Other times, they may be knock-offs or objects meant to look like the brand, but that do not actually duplicate the brand name or insignia exactly. Many people will not know the difference. Still, consumers who buy counterfeit items are generally not the targets of the government's anti-counterfeiting measures.

Anti-counterfeit laws target the traffickers of replicas and fakes. Going after every individual consumer who buys a counterfeit 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. If the counterfeit item is a fake drug that could threaten someone's health or a fake mechanical part that could affect safety, it will have a higher priority. It may also carry a harsher criminal penalty. (See 18 U.S.C. Section 2320.)

What Items Are Covered by Federal Counterfeit Laws?

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:

  • United States currency (coins and banknotes)
  • U.S. Treasury notes
  • U.S. Reserve notes
  • U.S. Bonds
  • Obligations or Securities of the United States
  • Letters patent (documents purporting to own intellectual property)
  • Ship's papers
  • Postage stamps
  • Money orders
  • 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 that intend to enable a person to claim any sum of money from the United States or its officers
  • Government documents, public records, including the signatures of judges and court officers

Federal law located at 18 U.S.C. Chapter 25 (Sections 470-514) provides a comprehensive list of prohibited counterfeit or forged instruments. Federal law located at 18 U.S.C. Chapter 113 (Sections 2311-2323) addresses crimes involving stolen and counterfeit goods and services.

Associated Counterfeiting Crimes

Producing or trying to pass off counterfeit goods or currency may lead to criminal fraud charges or a 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
  • Making, selling, possessing, or using slugs, tokens, or other counterfeit money substitutes

Penalties for Counterfeiting

Federal penalties for specific kinds of counterfeiting vary. The potential fine and prison sentence will depend on which criminal statute is at issue. A sentencing court will also consider a defendant's past criminal record.

Counterfeiting U.S. securities may carry a potential fine of up to $250,000, up to 25 years in federal prison, or both. Uttering or attempting to pass false U.S. securities is punishable by fines and up to 20 years in prison. Forging postage stamps carries possible fines and imprisonment for not more than five years. Trafficking in counterfeit goods can bring penalties of 10 years and steep fines. If someone becomes seriously injured or dies, then the potential prison sentence can double or lead to life imprisonment.

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

How Do Authorities Work 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 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 United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), 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 may help you spot consumer-related knockoffs. Identifying and preventing the crime of counterfeiting is more complex. It's more likely to happen over time by law enforcement through close monitoring. For more information, consider visiting either of the following websites sponsored by the federal government:

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

Counterfeit charges and other federal criminal prosecutions can be 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.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.