5 Things People Do With Money That Are Actually Illegal

Everyone knows what a serious financial crime looks like: robbing banks like Bonnie and Clyde qualifies, as does conning unsuspecting victims out of millions of dollars like Frank Abagnale, whose story was told in the movie, Catch Me If You Can. Financial crimes seem unlikely to ever impact the lives of most everyday Americans, but there are a surprising number of things Americans habitually do with checks, cash, and credit that are illegal.


1. Using someone else’s identity to obtain credit

Obtaining a line of credit under someone else’s name seems like an obvious misstep. More so than any item on the list, there may be little room to plead innocence or naiveté as an excuse for this blatant form of identity fraud. But naturally, there are exceptions. As Kaplan told Bankrate, she has seen instances where a parent beset with horrible credit opens new credit accounts under his or her child’s name. “It’s illegal to pose as someone else,” she said, “but there is also a moral question: Do you want to punish your child and wreck their credit as well?”

2. Signing someone else’s name on a check

It may seem like it’s not a big deal to sign the name of a family member or partner on a check; they may have been too busy driving to sign on the dotted line, or they may have been unexpectedly hospitalized. Your intentions may have been the best, but that does not change the fact that constitutes forgery and is illegal unless a power of attorney is in effect. Even if a parent signs the name of a child away at college, or if a child signs the name of a parent who has been incapacitated, they could still be found guilty of financial crime.

Carol Kaplan — formerly the spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C. and now Director of Public Affairs at National Insurance Crime Bureau — told Bankrate that signing someone else’s name on a check is usually considered to be a forgery, and is illegal in many states. “In most cases, it’s on behalf of a loved one who probably isn’t going to object, but people should know that that’s a forgery,” she added.

3. Writing bad checks

Sure, most banks now offer overdraft protection for when a customer makes a debit card purchase or writes a check that puts his or her account in the red. Accidents do happen, but knowingly writing a check that you do not have the funds to cover is illegal. And, according to Kaplan, the risk is larger than you may think; people do get prosecuted for writing bad checks.

“Not only are there criminal penalties involved, but you get put on a list of bad check writers,” she told Bankrate. “A lot of places won’t accept your checks, and you may have difficulty opening a bank account again because you’ve been labeled as a fraudster.”

4. Copying United States currency

Again, this may seem like a pretty straightforward thing to avoid; of course, you cannot print out money to buy goods or services. While it has become increasingly easier for just anyone to counterfeit U.S. currency thanks to the proliferation of high-tech printers, copy machines, and scanners, the felony comes with fines of up to $250,000 and up to 20 years in prison. But even if you are simply reproducing bills or coins for a game, a joke, or another purpose, you have to be careful. Claudia Dickens, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, told Bankrate that there are specific guidelines established by the Secret Service to follow. “If you make a copy of currency, it has to be at least 150 percent larger than what you and I carry in our wallets or 75 percent of its normal size. If you make it in color, you can only do one side,” she said.

5. Defacing U.S. currency

We’ve all seen it: the devil horns inked on George Washington’s portrait on the one-dollar bill, Abraham Lincoln made to look like the Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf on the five-dollar bill, and maybe even Andrew Jackson redrew as Ronald McDonald on the twenty. But deliberate defacement of U.S. currency is illegal, although you’re okay if your cash accidentally goes through the wash or gets eaten by a pet. Federal law stipulates that “whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined … or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.”