Inspecting a Card - the Very Basics
To fully inspect a card you will need some basic equipment. Thankfully, they are relatively inexpensive but an absolute necessity if you want to identify alterations or look at the overall condition. At a minimum you will need a halogen light, a ruler and a jeweler's loupe or some type of magnification devise.
The halogen light should be "at least" 50 watts in power with enough room to inspect the card at ten inches if needed. Halogen lights give off the correct type lighting necessary to see most alterations. There are several types to choose from like desktop, clamping etc. and it can be purchased at almost any office supply store, hardware store and some department stores. Many prefer a simple desktop.
A jeweler's loupe is typically a small handheld magnification devise that can fold up and slip into a pocket. They come in a variety of magnification levels but it is recommended that a 10X loupe be used to inspect a card. Other magnifications such as 5X, 15X, 20X or more are available. There are also several different types and looks of loupes that can be purchased to suit an individuals own style. Again, regardless of what you choose, a 10X loupe is still the most widely used and recommended...20x is too strong.
The ruler is needed to simply measure the card. You will need to know the "textbook" measurement of the card you are inspecting in order to know if it is the correct size. Like the other equipment listed above, rulers also come in a variety of sizes and shapes. It is a suggestion that both a stiff-type ruler, usually made of wood or hard plastic, as well as a flexible ruler be used. Each should have a metric side scaled to the millimeter and the United States standard side that can measure down to 1/32" of an inch. Normally an ordinary type ruler is used but there will be times when a card will need to be measured while it is encapsulated in a graded holder. The flexible ruler will be needed to contour around the raised plastic areas typically seen on a 3rd party authenticator's holder or slab.
Optional but recommended equipment would be a black light, which is used to reveal a part of a card that may have been re-colored with paint, markers, pens, etc. or has rebuilt corners and added cardstock. In some rare instances it can also be used to tell if a card has been altered with the use of chemicals. These can be purchased at almost all hardware stores. A completely dark environment using a 25+ watt black light usually works the best. Try building a black light box or use a 5-10 gallon acrylic fish tank painted a dark color on all sides except where the light will be used. Lay the tank on its side with the top opening in front of you and the light on top. You now have a black light inspection box.
There are no specific steps used to inspect a card, it is usually up to the individual but it would certainly include looking the entire card front and back, each edge, corners all at various angles, repeatedly if necessary. To assist in a card inspection the following steps can be used as a simple guideline:
Measure the card with a ruler both left to right and top to bottom noting the exact measurements. With the halogen light on, hold the card about six to eight inches from the light. Try different distances during the inspection as well. Initially the card should be positioned in such a way that an edge of the card is facing the light. Carefully tip the card slightly back and forth so that all angles of the edge can be inspected. After the first edge is looked at proceed to the next three, noting any abnormalities or color variances. A light edge(s) compared to tone colored edge could mean the card has been trimmed.
Turn the card face up and give a quick look the symmetry of the cut along the edges, the corners and picture centering and overall surface. The entire card should be directly under the light, again about six to eight inches to start then move it closer. Tilt the card in all directions from 5 - 85 degrees and everything in between while moving it clockwise or counter clockwise if you prefer. Look at the gloss, potential re-coloring spots, possible stains, dents, dings, residue, surface wrinkles, scuffs, scratches any thing that doesn't look normal and the overall general condition. Do the same with the back of the card.
With your 10X jeweler's loupe and under the light carefully inspect the corners looking at the overall condition and for any abnormalities. Take the loupe and look closely at any potential problems you may have noticed during the surface and edge inspections. Also look at the card with the loupe at various angles.
This should be all that is needed to examine a card for "basic" potential alterations and/or condition. As mentioned above, you may want to repeat any or all of the steps outlined until you feel comfortable every part of the card at every conceivable angle has been scrutinized to the best of your ability. In time, this process will become faster and easier as you gain more experience and develop your own routine and detection methods.