Fake money isn’t what it used to be

With ink-jet printers and computers, this generation has some lessons to learn.

By Joe Lambe

Friday,December 26, 2008

CORRECTION APPENDED: A Dec. 26 story gave a confusing statistic on the prevalence of counterfeit money. One in every 10,000 bills circulated in the United States is counterfeit, according to the Secret Service. Worldwide, about .02 percent of U.S. money is bogus.

The Secret Service agent in Kansas City peered hard at a counterfeit $100 bill, ran a finger over it and grimaced in disgust.

It was bad, ugly work.

“Too slick, too,” said Charles Green, special agent in charge.

More counterfeiters are using today’s ink-jet printers, computers and copiers to make money that’s just good enough to pass, he said, even though their product is awful.

In the past, he said, the best American counterfeiters were skilled printers who used heavy offset presses to turn out decent 20s, 50s and 100s. Now that kind of work is rare and almost all comes from abroad.

Among American thieves, the 22-year veteran said sadly, “it’s a lost art.”

But as art fades, greed goes on. Ink-jet counterfeiting is thriving.

Part of the problem, Green said, is that the government has changed the money so much to foil counterfeiting. With all the new bills out there, citizens and even many police officers don’t know what they’re supposed to look like.

Moreover, many people see paper money less because they use credit or debit cards.

The result: Ink-jet counterfeiting accounted for 60 percent of $103 million in fake money removed from circulation from October 2007 to August 2008, the Secret Service reports. In 1995, the figure was less than 1 percent.

No other kind hits the Kansas City area, Green said, except a rare “floater” fake that comes in from New York or some other coastal metropolis.

Counterfeiting is a constant problem that gets worse during a slow economy. The 15 Secret Service agents in Kansas City collect an average of $300,000 in fake bills in the metro area each year, he said.

But Green shook his head. Some fake bills nowadays are for $5 and $10 — even $1.

“It’s crazy.”

An era passes

Green pointed to a picture hanging in his downtown conference room. It’s a photo from a 1980s Lenexa case that involved heavy printing presses and about 2 million fake dollars.

“That’s what we used to see,” he boomed. “That’s the kind of case we used to make.”

Agents discovered then that someone had purchased such equipment and a special kind of paper and it all went to the Lenexa shop. Then the agents secretly went in there with a court order and planted a tiny video camera on a Playboy calendar.

They streamed video 24/7 for days, stormed in with guns drawn and sent bad guys to federal prison.

Green’s voice sank as he described today’s sad-sack counterfeiters.

These people call up pictures of bills on their computers, buy paper at an office supply store and print out a few bills. They cut the bills apart, go into a store or bar and pass one or two.

Many offenders are involved with drugs, he said, often methamphetamine. If they get caught, so little money is involved that federal prosecutors won’t take the case.

State prosecutors might convict them and get some time behind bars, but the charge is usually something like forgery. So it is not clear they were counterfeiters if they do it again.

The Secret Service is lobbying Kansas, Missouri and other states to create state charges of counterfeiting. Federal and state authorities need to work together more as printers and copiers get better and thieves gain skill, Green said.

An old problem

President Abraham Lincoln created the Secret Service in 1865 to deal with a crisis: One-third of the nation’s money was counterfeit.

Now the fake rate is .02 percent, or one in every 10,000 bills, Green said, but that could easily get worse. **SEE CORRECTION**

He cites the odd case of Thomas Crowl, a 60-year-old Merriam man who was experimenting with high-quality ink-jet counterfeiting when he paused to rob an Overland Park bank.

He might have made a breakthrough, Green said, might have been a contender.

But when busted for the robbery, Green said, Crowl asked police if they wanted to go to his home and see how he made money. They did and found boxes of bills, along with experiments that shined light through fake bills mounted on glass.

He might have been getting close to a quality product, Green said, or he might have been as bad at counterfeiting as he was at robbing banks. A federal judge this year sentenced Crowl to 57 months for bank robbery and manufacturing money.

Fighting back

Most counterfeiters aren’t as accommodating as Crowl, and they’re hard to catch. They can always claim they got the money from someone else.

The most common story, Green said, is “won it in a dice game.”

Another problem, he said, is that the recent changes in real money can confuse people. Some funny money contains features that aren’t on the real thing, and few people notice.

Newer bills now include color-shifting ink blotches, a new watermark and a security thread.

In the $50 bill, for instance, that thread is a slender embedded plastic strip that runs vertically by President Ulysses S. Grant’s portrait. In it, you can see tiny writing that says “U.S.A. 50,” and the thread glows yellow when held under ultraviolet light.

Some businesses stick bills under a light detector to check for that, but Green placed a counterfeit bill under the light and its stripe, too, glowed yellow.

The crooks used a surface paint to set off the light, but Green was unimpressed.

“Look at the size of that stripe,” he said. “It’s huge.”

He put the fake bill under a lighted microscope. The dot spatter pattern of the ink-jet printer obviously was not the sharp ink of the real thing. The seal wasn’t right, either.

Green put a real bill under the microscope and grinned like a proud father.

“Look at that — that’s a real seal — so much cleaner and brighter,” he said. “You can see the ink just laying on top of the surface.”

He said Secret Service agents will meet with business people, workers and police upon request and explain the law and how to spot bad money.

“We do it all the time,” he said. “Just call.”

Meanwhile, the money expert keeps looking at bad counterfeits, like a sommelier condemned to a life of quaffing bad jug wine.

What to do when given a phony bill

Counterfeiters can get merchants, bartenders or others in legal trouble.

“A lot of people give back the bill and say, ‘Give me a real one,’ ” said Secret Service Agent Charles Green. “That’s against the law.”

The law says victims have to take the money, turn it in and not get reimbursed.

“It’s not the best way to encourage people,” Green admitted.

The Secret Service has this advice for anyone who suspects a counterfeit bill:

Keep the bill from the passer.

Delay the passer with some excuse, if possible without putting yourself in danger.

Contact police.

Observe the passer’s description and that of any companion.

Handle the bill as little as possible to preserve fingerprints.

Write your initials and date on an unprinted edge on the front of the bill and surrender it to police or the Secret Service.

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