Just Starting Out

Avoiding “Trap Coins”

Published May 10, 2024 | 5 min read

By CJ Buchanan

As you venture into more expensive areas of numismatics, many beginners and young collectors fall victim to seemingly harmless coins that spell financial doom. “Trap coins” lure prospective buyers with a low price, but they epitomize the phrase “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” They come in all shapes, sizes, and holders and cater to the bargain-hunter in all of us. They are coins that, if not for their grade, designation, or strike, would be the deal of the century. Avoiding these will help you preserve your funds and increase your hobby enjoyment.


1865 “Plain 5” 2 Cents (Mint State-63 RB). (Photos: Heritage Auctions)

Copper coins are at odds with time and the environment. Red (RD) coins quickly become Red Brown (RB) and then Brown (BN) under the right conditions. A coin that’s graded RD that has turned RB but is still borderline RD is standard. These are usually priced well below other RD coins but still above RB coins. What is worse is when an RD coin has not turned RB but has been environmentally damaged. Third-party graders have shifted in their positions on these coins over time. Some guarantee the designation for a certain amount of time, while others don’t guarantee the color at all. 

Strike designations are less frequent infractions and are often more of a quality issue than a fundamental one. If the coin was cracked out of the holder and sent in, would it still receive the designation? Other problems occur with typographical mistakes. More commonly referred to as mechanical errors, these would include a Mercury dime designated as Full Bands on the label, but the third-party grader has not graded it as such. A simple verification of the certification number avoids this.

Prooflike (PL) and deep-mirror prooflike  (DMPL) coins face the same problems as strike designations, but they add another layer of issues. Third-party graders had much weaker requirements for these designations when they first began. Early PCGS, NGC, and ANACS-graded Morgans that feature PL and DMPL designations would not receive them if you submitted them today. These are extremely easy to fall for, as they are just as consistently undergraded. NGC “fatties” (1987-1995) are prone to this in particular. Upgrading attempts rarely make up for the lost designation. 

Vintage Holders

Coins in old holders often carry premiums, sometimes multiples of the coins themselves. This is supposedly due to stricter grading standards, “freshness” (being off the market for a considerable amount of time), and sometimes just for their rarity. While many undergraded and excellent coins are housed in vintage holders, these are also home to some of the worst coins imaginable. 

Coins change over time, and before modern holder designs and technologies were developed, slabs did not protect coins from environmental factors as well as they do today. Sometimes, they even accelerated the contamination of a coin’s surface. Nearly all PCGS “rattlers” (holders used between 1986-89) promote varying levels of polyvinyl chloride damage. At the same time, NGC “fatties” and ANACS “soapboxes” (1989-2006) begin to tone coins around the edges if improperly stored. The beginning stages of this are permissible, and some toning can even increase eye appeal. Still, it can quickly turn and eat into a coin, causing irreversible damage. Copper coins are regular culprits, but silver coins also occasionally get damaged. Severe environmental problems are only concerning when extreme humidity and mishandling are at play.

Problem Coins

1882-S Morgan dollar (Mint State-63 DMPL). (Photos: Heritage Auctions)

Sometimes, third-party graders get it wrong. They grade millions of coins, and mistakes are bound to happen. Luckily, they offer buyback programs to make it right. But why give yourself more hassle? These coins are the easiest to spot and are always the ugliest on the bourse floor. Bright, cleaned, and circulated coins are prime offenders. A missed wheel mark, recut devices, and rim filings are easy to miss on autopilot. Wheel marks are areas of concentrated hairlines caused by coin counting machines typically only seen at a specific angle. Recut devices occur when someone has nefariously reinforced the coin’s details through tooling. These are coins you should avoid regardless of price.

Take Your Time

Bad coins don’t have to be cheap for people to miss them. Some collectors purchase coins based solely on the label on the holder. The fast pace of modern numismatics can be difficult to overcome. However, with patience and proper observation, you can avoid trap coins. Simply being mindful of what problems can occur prevents 90 percent of them from tricking you.