How to Spot a Counterfeit Coin

How to avoid purchasing counterfeit coins

The Art and Deception of Counterfeiting coins has been around for a long time. The first Minted coins came from around 600BC. Originally, people counterfeited coins with the intention of deceiving merchants and citizens. In modern times, counterfeiters make counterfeit coins to deceive coin collectors. Either way, a counterfeiter makes his money by using less valuable material to turn something into a piece which is more valuable. In China it is perfectly legal to make counterfeit coins from other countries of the world!

How to hopefully avoid purchasing counterfeit coins

A basic skill set of how to detect counterfeit coins will hopefully save you money by avoiding the purchase of counterfeit coins. Everyone has had an experience or two of finding out what seemed to be a great deal was not. Go with your gut feeling and follow some basic principles.

  • Only buy coins from a knowledgeable coin dealer. Build a relationship with that dealer or persons. 
  • Buy only coins that have been certified by a third-Party Grading Service. PCGS, NGC or ANACS. You still need to look at the label and coin. There are many counterfeiters out there making fake holders as well. Changing coins in holders as well.
  • Do not buy bargain coins offered at a swap meet or flea market. Be careful online. You can not easily get items exchanged if the item is not what it seemed to be. Often people will show something and act like they don’t know what they have. Knowing what they have is a counterfeit coin.
  • If you think a coin may be counterfeit, seek a second opinion before you buy it. Many times, you talk yourself into that item is a great deal. 

Types of Counterfeit Coins

Counterfeit coins can be grouped into three different categories:

  • Struck Counterfeits- These are made the same way a mint manufactures a genuine coin by a planchet being struck between two-coin dies in a coin press. The counterfeiters can create the coin dies by engraving them by. hand, using the spark erosion method. This method usually leaves pitting or an orange peel appearance. Electrolysis is used causing an electric discharge between a coin or model and a steel blank. The original coin is usually destroyed so you will never see an extremely expensive coin made this way. This method could be used to alter a date on a coin as well. After the die is made. There are other ways of making a struck coin. Other techniques are one to one transfer engraving lathe- This is sophisticated using computational software to create a coin mold. The last struck counterfeiting technique is the plating or impact technique where the planchet is submerged and chemical process takes place. After achieving the desired coin dies, they can put them in a press using several tons of pressure to strike the counterfeit coins. This is the most expensive way to counterfeit a coin therefore only the most expensive coins are counterfeited this way.
  • Cast Counterfeits- This is an inexpensive way for counterfeiters to create a mold of genuine coins. Creating the mold is inexpensive and fairly simple in creating a cast. Counterfeiters like this because it does not destroy the host coin. Once molds are ready, the molten metal is poured into a mold. The more experienced counterfeiters will use a centrifuge to make sue the metal flows to the farthest recesses of the mold.
  • Altered Coins- This is the cheapest and quickest way to make money by a deceptive coin. You take an ordinary coin and modify it. S mints can be added to a 1909 VDB for example for under $20. -Splitting coins is another example. Counterfeiters can easily take a $100 1926 buffalo nickel from the Philadelphia mint. Take a 1929 S mint nickel from San Francisco which is inexpensive and create a 1926 S Buffalo Nickel worth close to $10,000.

Counterfeit Coin Diagnostics

  • Several scientific methods may give you a clue if a coin is counterfeit or not. The first is to have access to detailed specifications of a genuine coin. These should include size, diameter, thickness, metal composition, weight, and specific gravity. Use a high precision caliper to measure the diameter and thickness of the coin. Use a scale that is accurate to within 0.01 grams to measure the weight of the coin. Compare your results to that of the genuine coin. If they are significantly off, you may have a counterfeit coin.
  • Use an extremely strong magnet to see if the coin is attracted to it. If the official composition of the coin states that it does not contain any steel, the coin should not stick to the magnet. On the other hand, if an official coin specification states that it does contain steel, then a genuine coin will stick to the magnet. The United States mint only made one coin that contains steel: the 1943 Lincoln cent.
  • Next, look at the coin’s color to make sure it matches the metal composition of a genuine coin. For example, a 1943 Lincoln cent should be made out of zinc plated steel. Therefore, it should have a gray steel metal color. However, the United States Mint accidentally made a few 1943 Lincoln pennies out of copper. Counterfeiters have taken genuine 1943 steel pennies and plated them with copper. Therefore, if a 1943 copper colored Lincoln penny sticks to a magnet, it is an altered coin that is now counterfeit.
  • Study examples of genuine coins or find high-resolution photographs on the Internet to learn the unique features of an authentic coin. Areas you should study include the shape of the letters, the position of numbers, details on portraits, and the overall look and feel of a genuine coin.
  • The United States Mint has always had high-quality standards. Therefore, when inspecting a coin under magnification, the devices should be crisp and clear and the surfaces clean and smooth. Coins that have soft, mushy letters and devices are an indication the coin might be counterfeit. If the surfaces of the devices are course and lacking in detail, this may be another indication of a counterfeit coin.
  • Finally, look carefully at the coin with a high-powered magnifying glass or stereo microscope. Inspect for evidence of alterations that may include the addition or removal of a mintmark that would make the coin more valuable. Inspect the edge of the coin for evidence of a seam that would indicate the coin is a cast counterfeit or an altered coin made by joining two halves of genuine coin together.

Improving your counterfeit detection skills


  • If you have another example to compare is the best and easiest way to detect counterfeits. Look at the detail on the rim and fields. 
  • If you don’t have a coin then look at Third party websites such as PCGS, NGC or the internet. Compare details and overall appearances. 
  • Open a book. Red books have many details on coins. World coin books can be purchased, or the Library has copies. You don’t need the most recent book if you are only using it for the details.
  • This process takes many years of practice and learning varieties
  • Counterfeiters add contact marks and minor imperfections as well as wear.
  • Double dies versus Machine doubling