"We're in the basement, learning to print
All of it's hot!
10-20-30 million ready to be spent
We're stackin' 'em against the wall
Those gangster presidents"
Instead of robbing or stealing directly, some criminals prefer to make fake bills - that way, not only do they not have to pay for whatever they're "buying", they get real money back as change. It can be anywhere from one dude operating a low-grade printer out of his garage to a gang using a top-end press making super-bills. Sometimes, this extends to creating fake coins as well.
In other words, "Screw the rules, I make my own money!
When Played for Laughs
, there will be a GLARING difference between real and fake bills, like the counterfeiter's face instead of Benjamin Franklin
or Queen Elizabeth
, or unconventional denominations such as a $37 bill.
Anime and Manga
- One chapter of Detective Conan had Conan end up on the trail of a group of counterfeiters who had kidnapped one of his classmates' brothers; another had an old counterfeiter who'd hidden his work in an abandoned house when his conscience caught up to him.
- "The Hunt for Greenback Jane" from Black Lagoon: Jane wanted to create the perfect counterfeit bills, The Cartel that employed her wasn't happy with the Schedule Slip.
- One Gunsmith Cats manga arc had counterfeit plates as its MacGuffin.
- In Hayao Miyazaki's Lupin III film The Castle of Cagliostro, the MacGuffin was a counterfeiting set-up reputed to be so good that its output was indistinguishable from the real thing. Lupin, being the expert that he is, is one of the few that can spot these legendary "Goat Bills".
- One episode of Super Milk Chan had Milk and Tetsuko given the mission to find a counterfeiter who was printing his money so he could buy waffles.
- Buster Keaton's character in The Haunted House runs afoul of counterfeiters.
- In Lethal Weapon 4, fake bills were being cranked out in order to bribe the brother of a crime boss out of prison.
- Rush Hour 2 featured fake bills you can only tell are fake by burning and looking at the color of the fire.
- The Fratellis in The Goonies.
- This was the line of business for Mark Gor and Sung Tse Ho in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow
- During one sequence in Big Money Hustlas, the counterfeiter Bootleg Greg tries to pay his tithe to the crimelord Big Baby Sweets with counterfeit bills. Sweets's bodyguard kills him and flips his bills over - they're only printed on one side.
- To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) is about a Secret Service agent who becomes obsessed with catching the master conterfeiter who killed his partner, eventually crossing the Moral Event Horizon.
- The events of the Ridley Scott film Black Rain are set in motion by a conspiracy by the Japanese Yakuza to distribute fake U.S. currency via The Mafia, only a renegade Yakuza steals the counterfeiting plates.
- In the opening scenes of In the Line of Fire, US Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) and his partner are busting a counterfeiter group. In Real Life, as a part of the Treasury Department the Secret Service also handles financial fraud issues, as well as the protection service that's the focus of most of the film.
- In Christmas In Wonderland, two criminals plan to spread a large backpack full of counterfeit cash all over the West Edmonton Mall on Christmas Eve while the cashiers are least likely to spot it because they are so very busy however, they drop the bag over the railing, and two kids start spending it almost getting their family in trouble, and ultimately leading to the gang's downfall.
- Beverly Hills Cop III has a counterfeiting operation hidden inside a theme park. This eventually gets used in one of the most hilarious scenes of the film, in which Axel taunts the main bad guy by printing a roll of bills with his face and the words "Kiss My Ass" on them!
- In His Girl Friday, Walter has a friendly crook pass counterfeit money to Hildy as part of a gambit to get Bruce arrested.
- Though it doesn't appear in the film itself, the comic book and novel adaptations of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film have the people of Gotham City find out that the "free cash" that the Joker was giving away at the city's 200th birthday celebration parade he was throwing was all counterfeit bills with the Joker's face on them.
- The Counterfeiters (novel and film) is a Very Loosely Based on a True Story of a group of Jews caught during WWII that were made to counterfeit pounds and dollars to weaken the UK and US economy.
- Fredric Brown's short story "Don't Look Behind You". A man with a gift for printing is recruited to make plates to print counterfeit money.
- Strata by Terry Pratchett has a future society that's sent into crisis when a counterfeit of their supposedly uncounterfeitable currency shows up.
- One of several plots in The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, has the villains trying to throw the UK into crisis by pouring counterfeit money into the banking system.
- In the Tortall Universe, the second Beka Cooper book involves trying to track down a counterfeiting operation that could potentially ruin the nation's economy.
- In Cold Fire, Frostpine is kept busy hunting down a counterfeiter, leaving Daja to deal with the main plot.
- Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb and The Adventure of the Three Garridebs.
- In Good Omens, when one printer tells another that the current fad for books of prophecies is "a licence to print money", a footnote adds that the second printer's own thoughts on that subject eventually led to his arrest.
- Owlswick the stamp forger in Making Money. At the end of the same book, Vetinari notes with amusement that the Times has printed lifesized images of the front and back of the new banknotes, to aid people in recognition, and tells Drumknott "even now, honest citizens are cutting them out and gluing them together".
- In the Stephanie Plum novel Four to Score, counterfeit money proves to be very important to Stephanie finding her current skip (and in the process, accidentally helping Morelli with his current case).
- In one of The Demon Princes books, Kirth Gerson finds out how currency is verified, and uses this knowledge to scam 10,000,000,000 SVU out of a kidnapping organization.
- The final volume of the Baroque Cycle deals with the cat-and-mouse game between Master of the Mint Sir Isaac Newton and jack Shaftoe, who has taken up making counterfeit gold Guineas.
- Counterfeiters are a stock enemy in Enid Blyton's more Action Adventure-oriented works, such as The Island of Adventure.
- Counterfeiting plays an important role in at least two of J.T. Edson's novels. In The Rebel Spy, the Union plans to flood the Confederacy with counterfeit cash to undermine its economy, while in Two Miles to the Border, a crook comes up with an elaborate scheme that involves robbing banks, swapping the stolen money for a similar amount of counterfeit cash, then abandoning the counterfeit cash so the bank thinks they have got their money back while the outlaws abscond with the real cash.
- CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (original series) ran into some counterfeit bills that the Secret Service had released on purpose—part Secret Test of Character, part to track criminal organizations.
- CSI: Miami ran into some super-bills that were distributed from an off-shore gambling casino. (Wolfe got the hairy eyeball from Calleigh when he turned up with some on his person.)
- CSI NY's first season finale was based around this.
- One episode of NUMB3RS dealt with an artist kidnapped to help a counterfeiter gang.
- One episode in Fastlane dealt with one of the Buddy Cops' father's old profession as a counterfeiter as a part of an infiltration job.
- The BBC comedy-drama Private Schulz is based on a real-life Nazi plot to destabilize the British economy by flooding it with undetectable fake banknotes. In the series the title character recruits some Jewish prisoners to do the actual forgery (kind of like a more mercenary version of Schindler), and spends the rest of the war and afterward in various unsuccessful schemes to acquire some of the forged notes for himself.
- The Dukes of Hazzard addresses this one a few times. This troper specifically recalls one where it turned out the counterfeiting was being done by an elderly widow which the main characters agreed to cover up, but there were more than likely more than just that one.
- Hawaii Five-O had an episode with an attempt to foil a plot to flood the market with near-perfect — for the time — counterfeit bills. This, of course, is less "I want to get stuff without paying for it" and more "I want to crush capitalism and set up a system where I — I mean, we all — can benefit."
- Bottom had an episode featuring the production of genuine £27 notes, pornographic depictions of the Royal Family, "Welsh money" (triangular), and the infamous line "That's not the queen, it's Danny La Rue!" "Well, it's a queen..."
- In one episode of Malcolm in the Middle, Malcolm finds out that his neighbors set up a block party in celebration of their annual vacation, which obviously upsets him. So he desperately tries to go around doing good deeds to help make his family (or at least him) less despicable. Sadly, he inadvertently helps someone else steal his neighbors belongings. However, when the police arrive, he uses his eidetic memory to recite all the things that were stolen... which happen to be materials for printing stock certificates, which he quickly realizes.
- Wiseguy. The protagonist uncovers a Government Conspiracy to ruin the Japanese economy with fake yen, and finds he's been set up to be the fall guy.
- One episode of Hogan's Heroes featured a mysterious case that was revealed to contain dollar plates. Rather than destroy the plates, the heroes "signed" them, making them Nazi dollars.
- In the pilot episode, Hogan mentions that the prisoners have a counterfeiting operation running alongside all their other sabotage activities. They also mention that their fake German currency was of higher quality than the real thing.
- In another episode the prisoners find out that the Germans are trying to print fake money (British five-pound notes and American twenties) at Stalag 13. They manage to trick one of the workers (who was against counterfeiting anyway) into thinking that as soon as enough money has been printed to ruin the economies of the Allied nations, he'll be killed. He then works with them to set the building on fire so the prisoners can run in and trash the place under the pretext of fighting the fire.
- At least two episodes of Married... with Children feature the issue of counterfeit money. In one of them, Al and Griff blackmailed their boss. Because Al doesn't believe there are $100 bills, he thought she tried to trick him with fake money. In another one, Al tried to bribe Bud with Xeroxed bills and even moaned that each copy cost him eight cents. When Bud asked him about the original bill, Al realized he left it IN THE COPYMAKER
- The main conflict of Drake & Josh Go Hollywood is two thugs using a stolen money printer to get rich quick.
- In one episode of Psych, Shawn and Gus worked alongside a government agent and his own psychic to catch an international counterfeiter. Turns out that the psychic was in league with the forger.
- A non-cash variety appears in the 60's Batman where the foreman of a stamp factory uses the place as front to counterfeit priceless rare stamps to sell to collectors. He was the only villain of the series to be remotely subtle about his operation.
- Mission: Impossible: The IMF have to stop counterfeiters and recover stolen printing plates in at least two episodes: "The Money Machine" and "Fool's Gold". (The episode "The Counterfeiter" is actually about someone manufacturing counterfeit drugs.)
- Counterfeit cash plays an important role in the MacGyver episodes "Three for the Road" and "Rock the Cradle".
- Features in Unnatural History at least once.
- In the CBC teen consumer educational series, Street Cents, had the villain, Ken Pompadore, creating his own money for an episode to illustrate some concepts about currency. At the end of the episode, a Mountie (In full Red Serge uniform, of course) appears to explain to Ken the crime of counterfeiting and tells him to gather his money up and get rid of it.
- "The Night of Sudden Death" and "The Night of the Circus of Death" from The Wild Wild West. Since the main characters are Secret Service agents (and thus employed by the Department of the Treasury), this is technically the kind of thing they're supposed to be spending every episode investigating.
- The Fortuna becomes the dropping-off point for counterfeit currency, unbeknownst to its owners, in "The Money Game."
- A variation is used the 60's Batman where the only villain not doing a For the Evulz is operating a counterfeit stamp ring where he works, so as to sell them at high prices to collectors. Batman only got wise to him as a result of the episodes being a Cross Over with The Green Hornet who had been investigating the crime since the villain was Genre Savvy not to tell anyone what he was doing.
- Invoked then averted in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the new (and not entirely stable yet) government of a planet wants to "pay" the Federation for supplies by using their worthless (to the Federation) paper money. Averted when Riker points out that one of the supplies is a copier, and that it can copy their currency perfectly once it has local materials to work with and it can be easily programmed to change the serial numbers, and the Federation could always try to get the goods they want by trading with the new government's enemies... Cue the backdown from the new government.
- A Christmas Episode of Only Fools And Horses, "To Hull and Back", had Del acting as a courier between Boycie and some Dutch diamond smugglers. Del quickly realises the cash Boycie gave him for the transaction is counterfeit. What he doesn't realise is that his own payment for services isn't fake, and the episode ends with him throwing it away.
- On My Name Is Earl, this was apparently Joy's first major run-in with the law. She took a dollar bill and tried to photocopy it.
Joy: Excuse me, can I get some more green ink in this machine?
Kenny: Is that...are you...counterfeiting?!
Joy: Shh! Keep quiet about this, and I'll make it worth your while.
Kenny: I can't allow you to do that! COPY RESPONSIBLY! COPY RESPONSIBLY!
- One issue of Dragon Magazine included a "Top Secret" scenario in which the PCs need to infiltrate an underwater base and stop a counterfeiting plot. Promptly averted when they learn that someone dropped the plates, leaving an obvious crack across them and making them useless. (That someone is being tortured to death in the airlock when the PCs arrive.)
- In Exalted, counterfeiting is less common in the Realm than simply keeping and trading in unmarked blocks of jade, since the penalty is much less harsh (five years in prison against death).
- The Sims 2 University has a counterfeit money machine that allows you to print your own money. However, cops may randomly show up while you are working, in which they'll fine you and disable the machine. Also, the machine randomly catches fire from time to time.
- Dimitri's operation in Sly 2: Band Of Thieves, using Clockwerk's wail feathers as printing plates for his counterfit cash print. Gentleman Thief Sly is shocked that someone could stoop as low as printing their own money.
- Tommy Vercetti finds himself owning a printer's shop in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. For a career criminal building an empire, it was NOT his idea to start. Doesn't mean it stops him from going along with it. Or trying to pay off his former boss with fake bills.
- One storyline mission in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas involves The Mafia trying to flood the new Triad casino in Las Venturas with fake casino chips, though the job is amateurish enough that even a layman can spot major flaws.
- In Ace Attorney Investigations, the crime ring Edgeworth exposed was dabbling in counterfeiting Zheng Fa bills. This is why Interpol Agent Shi-Long Lang is persistent, as he's from Zheng Fa and the fake money is ruining his homeland's economy due to the difficulty of distinguishing between the real and fakes.
- Implied in the intro to Postal 2: Apocalypse Weekend: "Guess I need to make some money, but my printer's all out of ink."
- A potential quest in Fallout: New Vegas involves being hired by the Crimson Caravan Company to shut down a counterfeit bottle cap press (old Nuka-Cola and Sunset Sarsaparilla caps are legal tender in the western wasteland, backed by water merchants). If you find any counterfeit caps, they have a value of 0, suggesting that the Courier is savvy enough to identify them as fakes. Despite this, at least one mod exists that allows you to lie about destroying the press and use it to make your own counterfeit currency.
- A massive counterfeiting scheme is at the centre of the plot of True Crime: Streets of LA. The notes are of such high duplicity because they're actually printed with the Swiss-made plates used for the real thing and purchased by the North Korean government to supply to Russian gangsters (the Koreans were hoping to undermine the American economy, but the mobsters just use it to finance their own operations).
- Apparently, Lois from Family Guy has been printing counterfeit $20 bills for years.
- An episode of Bananaman had the titular superhero busting a counterfeiting operation. At one point, he examines a counterfeit banknote and marvels that he'd never have been able to tell it was a fake — prompting one of his long-suffering associates to point out that it has a face value of £7.
- The comics had a similar plot, except the punchline was a £9 note.
- The Flintstones: Barney once played a practical joke on Fred by building a fake counterfeiting press (the bills it "printed" being real money Barney won in a contest). Hilarity Ensues.
- In another episode, Betty Rubble gets a job as an old lady running errands for a handicapped woman. Betty was given $100 bills to make purchases no more than a loaf of bread. The bills were counterfeit as part of a press setup by the woman for whom Betty is working. When Betty and gang realize what she is being manipulated into doing, they try to trap the counterfeiters by handing over one of the phony bills, but are too dumb to suspect that the crooks are on to them when the woman inexplicably gives Betty a mere $20 bill. That turns out to be legal tender so the police don't believe their story of a counterfeit operation when they turn it in.
- Happened at least once in the original Scooby-Doo series. (One troper recalls Fred and Daphne screaming "COUNTERFEITERS!" with the same fear and urgency someone else might say "NAZIS!")
- A non-cash variety appears in a story arc of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Boris and Natasha are mass-producing counterfeit boxtops. The two spend boxtops on goods in every store that can be traded in for boxtops and crippling the economy. This arc had to be cut short due to complaints from General Mills, which was sponsoring the show.
- The Little Rascals episode "All the Loot That's Fit to Print" had the Rascals start their own newspaper, using a printing press that they didn't know was already being used by a counterfeiter. When Alfalfa found some of the counterfeit currency, he spent it, assuming that it was genuine.
- One episode of Darkwing Duck featured Bushroot developing a money tree that grew counterfeit bills. In addition, when the bills were placed into vaults, they would sprout into vines and carry the safes full of real bills back to Bushroot.
- One episode of Biker Mice from Mars featured the mice learning that Lawrence Limburger was using counterfeit money. At least until they destroyed his printing facility.
- One episode of Inch High, Private Eye featured robbers who left counterfeit money in place of the real money they stole.
- In Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Chuckie Sol, the first gangster victim of the Phantasm, intended to launder a briefcase full of the high-grade variety in his casino before his encounter with Batman (and Phantasm).
- While the gang on Hey Arnold! investigated a cave on Elk Island, searching for the legend of Wheezing Ed, they stumbled upon two guys who were making counterfeit pennies; when one suggested counterfeiting nickels the other acts like he's being a snob and if he wants to do something crazy like making fake dimes. The criminals however slowly realized the copper they had to buy and carve on cost a lot more than what they were trying to counterfeit...
- Daffy tried this on The Looney Tunes Show with a poorly drawn twenty dollar bill.
- Believe it or not, Mr. Krabs once did this at the end of an episode of Spongebob Squarepants after a newspaper business he started went bust.
- The Fillmore! episode "Immune To All But Justice" featured a counterfeit baseball card ring.
- Beavis And Butthead attempted this once and failed miserably, as they do at everything. They spent 1 real dollar to make 10 photocopies of that dollar. They were black-and-white, one sided copies on ordinary paper which were cut out extremely poorly. The duo then tried to photocopy coins. When they tried to spend this "money", they got tossed out of the store, then went back to the copy shop and tried to spend the fake money to make even more fake money.
- There's this poor but not so honest farmer who's so poor he's practically forgotten what money looks like. He finally decides that the only way he's going to get any money is to print his own, but he's a bit vague about the denomination he should print, so he finally settles on a fifteen-dollar note. He takes his freshly minted note to the store and gets some items. The shopkeeper says "That's exactly three dollars" and the farmer hands over his fifteen-dollar note. The shopkeeper looks at the note, looks at the farmer, looks and the note again, looks at the farmer again and finally says "How do you want your change? A nine and a three, or two sixes?"
- The Tasty Gold trope of biting into money to check its authenticity is Truth in Television. Back in the days of gold coinage, if the coin wasn't soft enough it had probably been alloyed with some cheaper metal, making the coin harder.
- Archimedes' famous discovery happened because of this: the king wanted a way to determine whether his crown was pure gold, or whether its composition had been mixed with other shiny metals—but he didn't want to bite his beautiful crown. What Archimedes realized was that if you mix base metals into the gold, the "gold" will occupy more volume than pure gold. Dip the item in question into water and mark how far the water rises. Dip the same weight of gold into the water. If the item is made of pure gold, the water will rise by the same level. If the item is fake, the water won't rise as far when the pure gold is immersed.
- There was an infamous counterfeiter who was known as the Omega man. The only flaw in the coins he made was a tiny Greek letter he added to them.
- Apocryphally a sting operation once used a machine that took in pieces of green paper and spat out perfect $20 bills. The secret, of course, was that the "green pieces of paper" were $20 bills.
- This has been used as a practical joke and in "hidden camera" shows.
- Another version of the trick has the crook selling the "money making machine" to a sucker (answering the obvious question by claiming that he needs a lot of money now and the machine is too slow). When the mark realizes he's been had, he's unlikely to report his own attempt to get into the counterfeiting business.
- There have been artists such as J.S.G. Boggs who specialize in drawing the front of a US $100 bill, and then sell it as art for $100 worth of goods & services. Several were investigated for counterfeiting and/or forgery.
- Günter Hopfinger produced about 300 1.000 DM notes that way.
- A Canadian teenager and his friends made a fortune producing counterfeit $100 bills. They made so many of them, in fact, that many retail outlets in Canada will no longer accept older $100 bills. Canada actually had to do a major redesign of the bills.
- William Chaloner, a seventeenth century coiner and forger, who became the bane of Sir Issac Newton's existence during the scientist's career as Master of the Mint.
- Ironically, Newton's Master of the Mint post was, at the time, essentially a sinecure — a form of stipend to give him funding and spare time for more scientific work. Newton, however, took his new responsibilities seriously, and made several important innovations in minting.
- In the UK, approximately 2.5% of £1 coins are counterfeit, totaling £363 million.
- As mentioned in the Ridiculous Exchange Rates trope, counterfeiting was endemic during the Russian Civil War. The Kerenki Ruble banknotes made by the provisional government were of such laughably poor quality that anyone with a storebought home printing apparatus could make indistinguishable copies. And they did. This devalued the currency so badly that both the counterfeiters and the mints didn't bother to cut them into individual banknotes and released them as 1x1 metre sheets to save time.
- As in the aforementioned The Counterfeiters, releasing counterfeit money into an enemy country to undermine its economy is a popular war tactic. The most infamous example would probably be during The American Civil War, where the Union flooded the south with millions in bogus Confederate cash. Whether this worked or not is debatable. Most of the fake bills were instantly recognizable because they looked too good, but many retailers still accepted them because the Confederate Dollar was already suffering from Ridiculous Exchange Rates, anyway.
- Counterfeit Money is a frequent problem in China. However, only higher-value notes tend to be counterfeited. This results with an odd situation where the jiao (RMB equivalent of cents) notes are much lower in quality than the yuan notes, their texture almost resembling counterfeited money. The idea is that the jiao are worth so little that nobody would bother counterfeiting them anyway.
- An interesting variation occurred when a woman tried to pass off a novelty $1 million bill at a Walmart in Georgia. She claims that she thought the bill was real, which if true means that she deserved what she got. Not exactly counterfeiting in the traditional sense, but it's noteworthy that the novelty bills in question got pulled from stores immediately thereafter. Unintentional counterfeiting?
- In an interesting inversion, a Swedish artist coined nine 10 SEK (a bit more than 1 USD) coins, that are normally made from a gold-colored alloy, of pure gold, marked them with an almost invisible mark, and put them into circulation.
- Operation Bernhard was a secret Nazi plan during World War 2 intended to destabilize the British and American economies by flooding them with forged notes. The plan was never fully realized and most of the forgeries were dumped in a lake. However some of the notes were used to make pay for such things as secret imports from neutral countries and payments to secret agents operating in Allied countries.
- Emerich Juettner got away with counterfeiting for a decade (from 1937 to 1947) despite the poor quality of his fakes (printed on ordinary paper, with badly reproduced graphics and Washington's name misspelled) because he printed only modest amounts of fake money and because people rarely pay much attention to one-dollar bills. (Even when people did notice, they often preferred to keep the bogus bill as a souvenir rather than report it.) He finally got caught when there was a fire in his apartment and his equipment got tossed into the street by the firemen.
- Possibly an urban legend, but according to several sources, back before the fall of the Shah of Iran, the US was helping the country modernize their currency system, supplying intaglio presses, the fancy paper with red and blue threads in, and even sample $20 plates to show how the serial numbers worked. Then came the Iranian revolution. Some large proportion of $20s were said to be these indistinguishable "Superdollars", but supposedly changing things would have been too difficult until the redesign in 1998.
- There's another urban legend floating around about someone who successfully passed a $200 bill with George W. Bush's face on it. (Bush does not appear on any currency—living persons are forbidden from appearing on US currency—and the US Treasury Department does not print a $200 bill).
- There have been reports that stores have refused to accept $2 bills (a valid but not commonly used bill) simply because the clerk didn't know that they were real.
- The same problem can arise when attempting to spend Scottish money in England, where it's not technically legal tender but has a 1-to-1 exchange rate and won't incur extra charges at the bank. This goes double for one-pound notes, long since phased out in England but still printed north of the border. (The flip side of this is that you will occasionally find a clueless sales clerk who thinks the one pound Scottish note is a five pound English note - they are vaguely similar sizes and colors, and people in England are really, really not used to seeing one pound notes any more.)
- A note of warning to English tropers. There are two standard Scottish responses to having money refused: Either anger, which causes any other Scots in the vicinity to crawl out of the woodwork and start berating you as well (Scots have a spooky Hive Mind in this regard), or dismissal, which involves simply leaving with whatever they were trying to pay for and leaving the Scottish money on the counter.
- In a case that combined this with criminal carelessness (carelessness by criminals as well as carelessness that is criminal), Italian police seized 125 billion in counterfeit $500 million and $1 billion U.S. bearer bonds. No U.S. bearer bonds have been issued over $10,000.
- The adage "Don't take any wooden nickels!" dates from The Great Depression, when counterfeiters would cut out little nickel-sized discs of wood and paint them so that they resembled a nickel if you didn't look too closely. One way to tell the difference was to bite on the coin; the 75% copper 25% nickel alloy of an actual five-cent piece is pretty hard against the teeth, but wood has some give to it and will allow you to leave tooth marks in it.
- Or the alternative explanation: Shops would occasionally distribute promotional wooden tokens worth "five cents in trade at X's store". The catch being that if the shop went out of business, the tokens would become worthless.
- There were multiple cases in the 19th Century of people gilding nickels, tricking people into believing that they were five dollar coins. The person to try this actually got away with it, because 1: There was no law against gilding currency at the time (This was quickly corrected), and 2: He only bought 5 cent items with his gilded nickels, thus if the store clerk gave him $4.95 change, it was arguably an error on the part of the clerk.