Movie Money in the EU: A Deception Circulating in Plain Sight


Jan 16, 2024

Altered design banknotes feature 'disclaimers' suggesting to anyone who looks closely enough that they are fakes, photo by Boris Roessler/DPA/Picture Alliance/Reuters

Altered design banknotes feature 'disclaimers' suggesting to anyone who looks closely enough that they are fakes

Photo by Boris Roessler/DPA/Picture Alliance/Reuters

Fake money is almost as old as money itself. Criminals produce, sell and use fake coins and banknotes—passing them off as genuine money. The euro is no exception and has been counterfeited since its introduction in 2002. But a recent trend in counterfeiting is causing increasing concern.

Until recently, most counterfeit banknotes detected in circulation in the EU were of relatively good quality, designed to be indistinguishable from genuine notes. These fakes tried to imitate security features—such as holograms and inks—which are intended to allow anyone to establish a note's authenticity without the use of special equipment.

The number of such counterfeit banknotes have decreased in recent years, alongside a boom in low-quality fakes known as altered design banknotes. Often referred to as 'movie money' or 'prop copies', these notes actually include 'disclaimers'—suggesting to anyone who looks closely enough that they are fakes, supposedly for use in the entertainment industry. However, these warnings are easily missed and mainly function as a pretence to cover up criminal intentions. Because altered design banknotes have a similar shape and colour to the real thing, they can easily be accepted as genuine money if no further inspection is carried out. The numbers of altered design banknotes entering circulation is testament to the fact that this is happening.

These notes, despite the disclaimers, are illegal. To be used legally in movies fake banknotes must adhere to rules set by the European Central Bank (ECB), and these altered design banknotes do not.

As a result, the European Commission, ECB, Europol, as well as certain central banks and law enforcement authorities of EU Member States have expressed serious concern over the tendency of citizens to be fooled by these banknotes. To learn more about altered design banknotes and their production, distribution and entering into circulation in the EU, Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs of the European Commission asked RAND Europe to study the scale and nature of the phenomenon, and how Member States and selected third countries counter it.

We found that altered design banknotes are easy to come by. In fact, they are openly on offer on several prominent e-commerce websites, and sometimes advertised on social media. This has led to a new audience of young people, with no previous criminal record, to try and get away with using these counterfeits. This is in stark contrast to the traditional higher quality counterfeit banknotes, which are typically produced and distributed by organised crime groups (PDF).

Awareness about altered design banknotes remains low and securing convictions has proven difficult.

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Meanwhile, awareness about the phenomenon remains low and securing convictions has proven difficult. Due to the limited perceived deceptiveness of this type of counterfeit, and the pretence of them being produced for entertainment, the phenomenon is often seen as being within a grey zone of legality—if a note can clearly be identified as fake by looking more carefully, should it be considered currency counterfeiting? It's partly for this reason that altered design notes are not always prioritised for investigation by law enforcement or prosecution services. On the occasions where cases have reached court, judges have been hard to convince that such an 'obvious' fake meets the standards for conviction. The phenomenon has therefore been able to flourish.

And this phenomenon is not limited to the euro or the EU, as it also affects other currencies and countries. The EU and the Member States may learn from the legal approaches taken in Australia and the UK to altered design Sterling and Australian dollar notes, where legislation is more inclusive and cases are less often dismissed because of the poor quality of such fake notes.

From analysis of the altered design banknotes, and based on data about interceptions of counterfeits at international borders, it can be inferred that altered designed notes are manufactured outside of the EU, notably by individuals operating in China. This highlights the importance of transnational cooperation to understand and tackle the issue.

If this understudied challenge is to be tackled, it's crucial that awareness is improved. A broader commitment, resources and willingness among the relevant authorities in different countries, as well as cross-border cooperation, may help improve the EU's collective ability to effectively counter the problem. Proliferation of fake currency leads to financial losses by EU citizens and businesses—the most likely victims of these crimes—and can undermine trust in the euro and even the EU's institutions. Public awareness is key; they are the first line of defence.

Fook Nederveen and Felicitas Hochstrasser are researchers at RAND Europe. This article is based on the report by RAND Europe researchers Fook Nederveen, Shann Corbett, Julia Doyle, Felicitas Hochstrasser, Neïla Khelifi and Emma Disley: 'Study on movie money, prop copy products and other altered design banknotes' (2023), which is not publicly available as it contains confidential data.