Detecting counterfeit documents


A counterfeit document is the complete fabrication of a security document.  It affects passports, driver’s licenses, national identity cards, social security cards and others. Combatting counterfeits is achieved by placing numerous security features both visible and invisible within the documents.  By recognizing security features that are within genuine documents, a suspect document can be compared side-by-side to determine if the same security features are present.   This article will introduce the more common security features and the analytical methods that are used to identify them.


Security features can range from non-visible (e.g. cannot be seen without specialized equipment) to the more common features that are visible without any specialized equipment.   Common security features include background printing, fibers, holograms, laminates, and watermarks. A brief description of these features follows:


Background printing:  a pattern or design that is visible on the passport page.  Normally, the pattern is underneath the text but sometimes the pattern is printed over the text.


Fibers: security fibers that are inserted into the paper during the manufacturing process.  These can be seen in normal light and usually without the aid of magnification.


Hologram: a multi-dimensional image that is made on a photographic film or plate without the use of a camera.


Laminate: a clear synthetic sheet that is placed over biographic information or photographs in passports and secured by heat or adhesives. The laminate may contain printed or retroreflective images that help detect tampering.


Watermark: an image resulting from differences in thickness of the paper.  It is usually produced during the paper making process by pressure on the mold or on a processing roll and visible when held up to light.


Generally, counterfeiters fall into two categories:  amateur and state-sponsored.  An amateur counterfeiter is trying to pass a counterfeit document through a low-level inspection point (e.g. bank teller, cashier or security guard).   State-sponsored counterfeiters  have the support of their home government and will have access to the security materials used in the creation of the security documents.  These types of documents may frequently pass through more stringent security checkpoints without detection.


Analytical methods to detect counterfeits includes using a microscope and alternate light sources to observe printing processes, microprinting, laminates, substrates, and security fibers.   Chemical and additional instrumental processes can be used as well.  Natural light or direct lighting allows an examiner to review the document as a whole making notes of areas for consideration once the document is viewed with magnification.




Alternate light sources such as Ultraviolet (UV) light will allow security features that react with the UV light to fluoresce producing a glowing effect.  Security features that react with UV light are holograms, laminates, fluorescent ink and fibers, and the stitching that holds the passport together.


Side-light or oblique light can help detect a seal or text that is embossed onto the paper. Embossing creates a raised surface produced by pressure that can be viewed and touched. Side lighting can also help detect possible photo substitutions.


A light box allows transmitted light to pass through the document in question.  Transmitted light highlights watermarks within the paper and simultaneous printing (a type of security feature).  This type of printing occurs when images are printed on opposite sides of the same page and when held up to light, align exactly with each other.


Besides specialized equipment, developing a good reference collection is a must.  This can be built up over time. Start by collecting identify and security documents at a national level and from neighboring countries using diplomatic channels.  Issued documents should include different exemplars of the same document, different versions of the same document as well as documents required for the issuance of identify and security documents. Reference collections such as these must be housed in a secure environment with strict requirements for removing items to be analyzed.  Another alternative is to have basic equipment in the reference collection room to avoid having to remove the specimens. Many laboratories may not have the capacity to maintain a vast reference collection of their own and may send specialized cases to appropriate Laboratories for comparison.


The best defense against counterfeit documents is good training and adequate equipment.  A standard examination procedure should be used for cursory examinations of all passports for security features and areas of the passport where an alteration is likely to occur.  An inspector does not need to be familiar with all passports to render whether a passport is genuine or not, however an inspector trained and familiar in counterfeiting techniques will be able to identify false passports when they present themselves.