Counterfeit Bills

Q. Last week in my office, someone passed us a counterfeit note when paying for a purchase. Are we stuck with the note, or are we allowed to "pass it along?" After all, we are not the counterfeiters, so why should we take the loss? On the other hand, somewhere along the line someone will be left holding the bag.

A. Your frustration at having received a phony note is understandable. But you can not pass the buck (literally) to someone else.

There are two distinct problems involved in passing a bad note. One is that you are misleading the person who receives it, since you are representing it as a genuine bill. This is a classic problem of a deceptive business practice. Jewish law unambiguously rejects the idea of "let the buyer beware", and holds both buyer and seller responsible to fairly represent what they have to offer. A popular metaphor calls the marketplace a playing field. A playing field is a place where it’s okay to compete and play hard, but if people don’t play by the rules then everyone loses.

The other problem is that passing counterfeit money is a crime against the sovereign. It's not just against the law, like double-parking; it's actually considered infringing on the authority of the government. For example, in the United States it is one of the relatively few Federal crimes.

Today it is fashionable to "question authority”. While Jewish tradition affirms that authority may not turn into tyranny, we consider the respect and legitimacy of the government as one of the most important contributors to peace and stability. For this reason counterfeiting is considered one of the most serious crimes.

If you can identify the person who gave you the forged money, you may ask them to pay you with a good bill. Reporting the forgery would be good citizenship, because if a person passes a few thousand large bills and every single recipient decides that the amount is too small to justify notifying the police, then the law enforcement authorities have not been alerted to a major crime, even though thousands of individuals are aware of it.

SOURCES: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228; Mishna Avot 3:2; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 425:1 in the Rema