how to tell if a card is a fake

Everything You Need To Know About Counterfeit Cards

This comprehensive guide will outline how to tell if a sports card is fake, equipping you with the knowledge for smarter acquisitions.

Updated Nov 04, 2023

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Navigating the bustling online market of sports card trading can be thrilling, yet the shadow of fake baseball cards looms large, threatening the integrity of the hobby.

This issue isn't new, but with advancing printing techniques, identifying fake cards is much harder nowadays.

This article dives straight into deciphering how to tell if a sports card is fake, offering you a solid foundation to make informed purchases and steer clear of fraudulent listings. 

By recognizing the signs of counterfeit cards, you'll be well-equipped to ensure the authenticity of your acquisitions.

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Key Points Of Detecting Fake Baseball Cards
  • Watch out for 'aged reprints' with spider wrinkles that have been soaked in liquids to age the card.
  • Examine the card under a black light for unusual glow (a hallmark of modern cards which are printed on newer paper materials)
  • Use a jeweler's loupe to spot irregularities in printing and use a flash light to see if light shines through the card. 
  • Avoid sellers with no feedback or poor feedback on platforms like eBay.
  • Verify graded cards with the grading company’s online database.

What Is The Difference Between A Fake Sports Card And A Reprint?

Before diving in, I find it necessary to explain a common point of confusion among newer card collectors.

A counterfeit (or fake) card is created for the sole purpose of misleading collectors. These cards try to replicate an original card as closely as possible. Vintage counterfeit cards are often aged to make the cards look old and more authentic.  

fake-wagner

This T206 Wagner card is considered a fake or a counterfeit. The card has been artifically aged and created with the sole intention of trying to trick collectors into believing the card is authentic.

A reprint baseball card (sometimes referred to as a 'reproduction') is created with the sole purpose of being utilized as a collector's item, with full acknowledgement that the card is not authentic.

Reprint cards are commonly reproduced for very expensive cards so that collectors can purchase a replica of the original card at a big discount.

Sometimes, but not always, a reprint baseball card has text such as 'reprint' printed on the card to help distinguish it from the authentic version.

wagner-reprint

A 1909 T206 Honus Wagner Reprint Card

wagner-reprint-back

The back of a T206 Wagner Reprint Card, which is marked with 'Reprint' on the back.

Reprint cards are sometimes re-created as an entire set, as we have seen multiple times with various 1909 T206 reproductions.   

The lines between a reprint and a counterfeit card can often be blurred. For instance, scammers will erase the word 'reprint' on a reprinted card in order to try and pass off the card as the real thing. 

galasso-reprint-ruth

This Galasso Reprint card of a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth. Scammers will try to erase the section that says reprint and try to artifically age the card to try and pass it off as the real thing.

Are Reprint Cards Worth Anything?

Generally, reprint cards are not worth much, as collectors view reprint cards as novelty items. Some reprint sets have more demand than others, specifically some of the older T206 reprint sets. However, on average, reprint cards are not worth more than a few dollars each. 

There are some minor exceptions for reproduction cards produced by an original manufacturer. A good example is the 1996 Fleer Decade of Excellence Michael Jordan card which was produced in limited quantities and inserted randomly in packs of 1996-97 Fleer basketball. However, its value is still a fraction of the value of an original Michael Jordan card.

ultra-decade-excllence

A 1996-97 Fleer Decade of Excellence Michael Jordan card. This is considered a reproduction of the original Michael Jordan rookie card.

Beware Of  'Aged' Reprint Baseball Cards

There is a sneaky little subset of the scammer population that is totally dedicated to taking reprint cards and aging them to make them look authentic. 

The cards are soaked in coffee or tea or some other liquid. Once they dry, they get that 'wrinkled' look with a sort of 'crackling' on the surface. 

fake-ruth

A fake 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card which has been soaked in liquid to give it an aged appearance.

Some are more covert about their operations, but some call what they do 'antiquing' and just that word alone drives me absolutely bananas. 

The big thing that I find is that the 'antiquers' are supplying a lot of the fakes I see on eBay.  

So where do these antiquers hang out? 

Mostly on ETSY and in some cases, buyers are shelling out close to $100 for these cards. Case in point is this fake M101-4 Sporting News Babe Ruth rookie card I found on ETSY which is selling for $75. The seller states that the card is 'museum quality' and that the card 'has not been professionaly examined', yet with no acknowledgment that the card is a fake.

One poor unsuspecting buyer said that the card 'reeked of coffee', which is not a surprise, since many aged reprints are soaked in coffee to give it the wrinkled look.

babe-sporting-news-fake

A fake M101-4 Sporting News Babe Ruth Rookie Card

babe-sporting-fake-back

The back of a fake M101-4 Babe Ruth with a fake signature.

Once you've seen an aged reprint in person, it's easy to spot.  So, I find this to be one of the most important lessons for vintage collectors. 

Here is an aged reprint of a Sporting News M116 Ty Cobb Card that has clearly been soaked in order to age the card.

m116-fake

A fake M116 Ty Cobb Card

ty-cobb-m116-fake-back

Back of fake M116 Cobb Card

The front has some obvious signs of a fake for me, but for a less experienced collector it might be a bit more challenging.   

It's easy to see the spider like crackling on the front and if we were to compare to an original card, the paper color and thickness is completely wrong.

Red Flags on eBay to Help Avoid Counterfeit Card Sellers

Unfortunately, eBay has become a breeding ground for counterfeit sports card sellers. I've outlined some key things to look out for to help identify fake card listings. 

1. Watch Out For A Lack of Seller Feedback, Poor Feedback or Re-Listed Items

Before buying on eBay, check the seller's previous auctions and feedback history.

Be wary of sellers who suddenly list a high-value card with no prior feedback or for sale listings.

Also, sellers with less than a 99.5% feedback score might have some telltale signs in their feedback comments.  

If you see that the eBay seller has tried to pass along a fake as authentic with a past buyer, odds are they will do it again.  

In addition, sellers might need to re-sell a fake card since the previous buyer smartened up and returned it.  So, be sure to review their past completed listings.

2. Watch Out For Sellers That Plead Ignorance Regarding Authenticity 

There are some commonly worded scams on eBay that help collectors in pinpointing a fake. Usually it goes something like this:

I found these cards in the attic of my grandfather and I'm not sure whether or not they are real as I don't collect cards

And note that eBay requires that sellers list a card as a reprint if there is a question about authenticity. Here's a real listing which is usually how they are advertised:

This card is being offered on consignment as an unknown vintage reprint and sold to the highest bidder. Looking at this card carefully, I can say it definitely looks vintage and factory made like a real card with actual wear when compared to a  vintage Topps card from the 1950's era. This card is not a modern reprint or a DIY copy.

The above description was for an obviously fake '52 Topps Mantle (see below) yet the card ended up selling for $280! 

mantle-52-fake

A fake 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card.

Thankfully, eBay in recent years has begun to step up its policing of fake cards on its platform. The new eBay Authenticity Guarantee will ensure that any ungraded cards priced at $250 or more are eligible for certification from a third party grader. 

3. Be Wary Of Cards Of Questionable Authenticity In Old School Screwdown Holders

I don't know how this ever happened, but for some reason scammers LOVE screwdown holders.

Do they think a buyer is impressed by the fact that a card is squeezed between two slabs of plastic and four screws?  They must, because I see it all the time. 

mantle-screwdown

A fake Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card in a screwdown holder.

I will say that maybe 10% of the sellers with fake cards in screwdowns have no idea of what they have (and were possibly scammed themselves) and that maybe 2% of the cards in screwdowns are actually real.

The only reason I mention that last part is because I did find an old and authentic Honus Wagner for sale in a screwdown holder. So, while there are rare exceptions, if you see a screwdown holder and a card with questionable authenticity, probably best to just move along.  

Making Sure A Graded Card Is Authentic

The grading companies are good, but they don't always get it right. In addition, there are scammers that bust cards out of slabs and replace them with a counterfeit. 

Thus, collectors need to verify that the graded card they are buying is indeed authentic.

As an example of a grading company getting it VERY WRONG: a fellow collector purchased a Tris Speaker strip card that was graded by PSA as authentic but later determined to be a reprint (see below).

w551-speaker-reprint

A PSA Graded Tris Speaker card that was determined to be a reprint.

This is especially important with some of the older, more obscure issues, like the Speaker above or with cards that were graded early in PSA or any other grader's history.

Here are the key steps to take. 

1. Verify cert number On PSA Website Or Other Grader

Start by verifying that a graded card has been recorded by the grading company. This will help confirm that the card has been graded and that the HOLDER is real.

PSA Certification: https://www.psacard.com/cert/
SGC Certification: https://www.gosgc.com/cert-code-lookup
Beckett Certification: https://www.beckett-authentication.com/verify-certificate

psa-cert-verification

I've had a few cases when I went to enter a cert number and the PSA website returned a 1-800 phone number asking to call the office. This is a sure sign that someone is using that cert to produce fake PSA slabs. 

2. Look For Tampering and Fake Graded Slabs

You must also look for signs of tampering on the exterior of the cardholder to ensure that someone didn't replace the card. See our complete piece which discusses the History of PSA Slabs and How to Detect Fake Slabs

3. Review Graded Card Sales History

If you go to the PSA website and look up a specific card with past sales history, you can do a search on the page (Ctrl-F) for that cert number to see when it was sold.

Sometimes, you can revisit an old auction listing to verify that the card currently in the holder matches up to one of the older auctions.

I've spotted a few fakes this way, when the card being sold at auction was not the same card I was considering to buy.

Normally, this card replacement scam occurs more often with expensive big-time cards, such as the '86 Fleer Jordan Rookie, where good reprints are readily available.

Steps To Help Identify Fake Cards

1. The Blacklight Test

A simple black light can be a big help when trying to detect a vintage counterfeit card. I own this one here, which looks more like a flashlight and is only around $15.  

blacklight

If you're serious about collecting vintage cards, a blacklight is a must have item.

The key is to go into a totally dark room with the lights off. Take the card in question out of the holder and shine the black light directly onto it.

Take a piece of white printing paper into the room or another modern day baseball card.

You will be able to see how the paper (or card) glows like crazy due to the pigments used in making the paper.  

If the card in question 'glows,' it's likely a fake.

blacklight-test

Under blacklight these 100+ year old strip cards (on the left) show no brightness, where a 1987 Topps Dave Winfield glows like a light bulb.

It can also help to get a similar card from the set you are analyzing that you know is authentic. 

If that isn't possible, after doing this a few times, you'll be able to notice the glow in the card if it's fake. 

We conducted a blacklight test in the video below as a demonstration of how collectors can help detect a fake sports card. 

David Cycleback who has written extensively on the topic of authentication notes that optical brighteners were used in cards starting around the late 1940's.  

Starting in the late 1940's, manufacturers of many products began using optical brighteners and other new chemicals to their products.  Optical brighteners are invisible dyes that fluoresce brightly under ultraviolet light.

Thus, the blacklight technique won't normally be very effective if examining say a 1952 Topps Mantle, but for pre-war vintage cards, it's almost a necessity to have one around.

2. Examine Card Using A Jeweler's Loupe

Don't need to go too crazy here, as you just need something that can magnify a card with by about 5-10x. 

I bought a cheap jeweler's loupe (for around $5) off eBay which is probably overkill (as it is a 60x loupe) but it does the trick.  

It actually has a regular light and a little black light (which I think is used for detecting fake currency, in case that's your thing, too). 

loupe

Now, the reason you'll need this is to help detect any printing irregularities on a fake card.  Modern cards (and counterfeits) are made with color-half-tone printing and produce what appears to be a dot-matrix type of effect. 

modern-card-half-tone

I tried to get a good shot of this. It's not great, but I think you will get the idea, as the dots in the printing are quite uniform in nature. Note that the text, solid borders will typically look like a solid line under microscope.  

modern-card

A closeup of a modern era baseball card which shows uniform printing marks which are made utilizing color half-tone printing. (Copyright All Vintage Cards - Cannot Be Reproduced without Written Permission)

Thus, if you have a suspected fake pre-war card that has this sort of dot matrix printing, it's likely a fake.  

Here's a T206 card under a microscope. You can see that there are irregular patterns and that the printing is not as clearly defined as a more modern printed card.

t206-microscope

A T206 Vintage baseball card under magnification which was printed utilizing a multi stage lithography process which produced a more blotchy print as shown in this image. (Copyright All Vintage Cards - Cannot Be Reproduced without Written Permission

Note that the loupe can also come in quite handy on more modern counterfeit cards.  As we discussed in our Michael Jordan counterfeit discussion, the lettering and borders on a Jordan fake are often blotchy and not as clearly defined as on an original. 

3. The Flashlight Test

I get a lot of questions from collectors asking whether or not a flashlight can help detect a fake card or not.

Counterfeiters find it extremely challenging to replicate the original cardstock of vintage sports cards. 

A simple way to detect a fake card is to place the dard directly on a light source, like a flashlight, and observe if light passes through.

Authentic cards will block the light due to their thicker cardstock, whereas counterfeit cards often allow light to pass through.

Although not all counterfeits may be printed on translucent cardstock, if light easily shines through, it's likely unauthentic. 

Most Commonly Faked Sports Cards

I've spent a lot of years examining fake cards and working with collectors who are unsure whether or not they have been scammed.

Based on my experience, these are the top ten faked sports cards along with a link to a complete guide on how to detect fakes for each card.

1. 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan Rookie
2. 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle
3. 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth
4. 1979-80 Topps/OPC Wayne Gretzky
5. 1984-85 Star Michael Jordan #101
6. 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle
7. 1909 T206 Honus Wagner
8. 1980-81 Topps Bird/Magic Rookie
9. 1954 Topps Hank Aaron Rookie
10. 1987 Fleer Michael Jordan

Let Us Know About Any Good Forgeries

If you see a good fake that would pass even the harshest critic at PSA, please let us know.

We are working on building out a database of the available counterfeits on the market and would love to hear from you if you see a good one.  

Just drop me a line at chris@allvintagecards.com.

All Vintage Cards

About the author

Chris Rogers, is the founder of All Vintage Cards. Launched in 2018, All Vintage Cards is the hobby's leading resource for vintage sports cards. Chris is also the author of 'The Complete Guide To Selling Your Sports Cards'. Chris remains an avid collector and can be reached at chris@allvintagecards.com.

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  1. Thank you for creating this website, Chris. I’ve been reporting counterfeits on eBay for years and years. It’s exactly like you said, I really wish eBay would do a better job.

  2. Hello and thank you for the tips. My card: 1989 NBA Hoops Michael Jordan #200. The red ribbon on the bottom of the cards has 2 “White?Gold spots. They look as if they were printed that way. Have you heard of such an error or fraudulent copying?
    Thank you for your time.
    Jeff the Beginner.

    1. Hey Jeff, so, yes unbelievably the 89 Hopps Jordan card has been counterfeited–I haven’t had a fake in my hands, but I know that on a real card, on the back the text in the copyright area — the letters are sort of stuck together, whereas, on the fake card, the letters actually have more spacing.

  3. i am trying to make sure a jim brown rookie is real or fake what is the most sure fire way to tell a real from a fake

  4. Hi I have a 2009 donruss Ilite rc Stephen curry auto #166 I had it for sale on eBay and a bider on eBay told me it was a reprint it doesn’t say reprint how can I tell George thanks.

  5. Hello sir I’m trying to determine if my 1952 Mickey mantle is fake. It’s a type one with everything is correct. But the background around Mickey look off. It’s looks darker

  6. I might have received a fake 2021 Shohei Ohtani Topps black chrome green 17/99 jersey number I saw someone else selling a graded one with the same number. Now I know in Japan it's the sheet number that goes on each card. So there will be nine cards numbered 17/99 because 9 are on each sheet.. I was wondering if this is also how Topps black chrome number their cards by the sheet? If so how many usually come on a sheet? Please let me know. Thank you much.

  7. Thank you sharing your experience. Fakes, or unauthorized reprints have no place in such a community driven, family generational, shared hobby such as American Sports cards. It makes me ill. (Especially when the antiquer got away with a nice lump sum.)

    Anyways, I know you mentioned the small percent, but my grandpa, my late father, and a much younger yours truly, collected cards. I don't have anyclue about the latest and greatest. Or whats hot, whats a rookie, insert, limited new cases etc…

    Now to my point. A good amount of cards had been gradually stolen (mostly by distant relatives) over the years. Looking at whats left recently, a lot of the apparent "good ones" or speculated at the time to be, (Matt williams, Darryl Strawberry) good ones are in those screw downs. Lol. I buy a lot of things on ebay. I don't have much seller history though. Recently considered maybe letting go of these cards. They kind of make me sad a little to see them. I was going to do lots or whatever and some singles. In screwdowns. I didn't want to spend money or time on getting appraised, graded, bull shitted. Or straight hustled.

    Now im thinking "shit… now what?"

    Well, long winded, I know. Sorry. Just kind of more lost or even paralyzed to make any progress towards selling them.

    What would you recommend as a path of least resistance. Not worried about top dollar per se. As long as I came away with fair enough-ish. I understand like most anything, the next guys gotta eat too.

    Thanks for any advice and/or time you spend rsponding. Its qppreciated. Also, ive enjoyed some of your content recently.

  8. I have a couple of 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey RC's. They feel a lot thinner than a normal baseball card. Are these real or fake (they have the hologram on the back). Thanks

    1. Here’s a trick in regards of Upper deck cards. If you slide your finger over the hologram logo you shouldn’t feel it or perhaps a little bit as it’s suppose to be inserted in the card. The fake ones are glued but still feels rough. Someone tried to sell me some cards like Bure,fedorov and other rookie player and flagged it right away.

  9. Hello I have a 2018 Josh allen Panini Obsidian Rookie Eruption card #4 of 10 I'm not sure that this card is real I haven't been able to find it at all any where's on the web or trading card store I really need some help with telling weather or not this real or fake Thanks in advance if able to help.

  10. Chris, I can only say Thank You a thousand times on behalf of myself and all collectors. What you are doing is really helping the hobby and the community. It's disgusting that people make fakes, and that they, and others, pass them off as authentic. The only thing that an honest collector can do is to educate themselves, and that is what you are doing. It's a shame that we have to think like this and go through all of these steps; but for a vintage collector ( or for anyone who buys a high value ungraded card ), there is just no other choice.

  11. Hi my name is Timothy I have a Tom Brady 2000 Rookie Preview Autograph and the letters on the back are kind of blurry could it be a fake ? I bought it on ebay raw ? I don't want to send it to be graded because of time and I don't trust our mailman lol can you help me ?

    1. Jim, not all, a lot of early issues have blank backs or advertising backs with no year imprinted on them. Most major manufacturer issues from the 1950s on do have the year indicated on the back…not all but a good majority.

  12. Nothing like you guys, with these real old vintage cards, but I received a Ed "Too Tall" Jones rookie card that is very questionable. It is very thin, looks mint, corners perfect, card does not fill right, has a light white spot on back.

    1. Hey Doug, no fakes of that card that i know of, but there is a 2001 Topps Archives reproduction card. If you look on the back, there will be a little Topps Archives emblem in the top corner. Otherwise if that’s not there, its very likely the card is authentic.

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