Thousands of fake bills locally, and millions nationally, are flooded into the economy by counterfeiters each year, causing problems for businesses and banks, authorities say.
In the past month, five counterfeit $10 bills have been passed at businesses in Vandalia and Kettering, according to police reports, and the problem is considerably broader than that. The U.S. Secret Service has recovered $19,950 during the year’s first three months across the eight counties served by the Dayton office, said Todd R. Bagby, resident agent in charge.
“There has been an increase,” Bagby said. “Like everything else, it’s fluid. It typically picks up around the holidays.”
Counterfeiting is not new. The Secret Service was founded in 1865 to suppress counterfeit currency. But technological advancements have changed the game, both for the counterfeiters and the investigators.
The quality of the fake bills vary. The good stuff, done on offset printing presses just as the government prints, is usually done in foreign countries then smuggled in. The not-so-good stuff is done on laser or ink jet printers, Bagby said.
The Federal Reserve Bank estimates there is about $877 billion in genuine U.S. currency in circulation worldwide, though that figure fluctuates monthly. Though less than 1/100th of 1 percent of the value of that currency is reported counterfeit, the Secret Service recovered $154.7 million in passed and seized counterfeit bills during the 2011 fiscal year.
Bagby said counterfeit bills tend to follow the drug trade and other street crimes. When the Southern Ohio Fugitive Apprehension Strike Task Force (SOFAST) arrested James Rowles on March 15 in connection with a February shooting, authorities found 59 fake $10 bills nearby on the ground. As Rowles was processed into the Montgomery County Jail, officials found six more counterfeit $10s and two counterfeit $20s.
On March 28, federal officials charged Rowles with a counterfeiting offense. He served a one-year prison term after a conviction for a similar offense in 2009. Rowles told investigators after his recent arrest that a man sold him the bills for 35 cents on the dollar, but declined to identify the man. Though Rowles said he had been to where the bills were manufactured, he declined to say where that was, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court.
On Wednesday, a U.S. magistrate judge ordered Rowles to remain in detention.
Counterfeiting investigations, like drug cases, can take plenty of time, picking up street-level distributors and moving up the supply chain, Bagby said. On Monday, the U.S. Marshals arrested Teir “T. Money” Pitts, 21, the latest pickup in an investigation that started in 2009, when a woman dropped several bad bills on the Walmart, 3360 Pentagon Blvd., Beavercreek. Pitts, charged with five federal felonies, was released Thursday on his own recognizance.
At the Dayton office, investigative assistant Angela Greenhalgh had several fake bills on her desk. Greenhalgh examines seized bills through a microscope, looking for tell tale signs, such as the tiny dots left by ink-jet printers. Greenhalgh said some inks can be traced directly to certain brands of printers or copiers, and some types of paper can be traced directly to other countries.
The bills are easy to spot, even without a microscope, if you know what to look for, Bagby said. But the key is often in the feel.
U.S. currency is printed on paper that is 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen, and “it’s very hard to duplicate,” Bagby said.
Sometimes the foreign bills smuggled in are made on paper that better approximates greenbacks paper. Those printed off computers, the majority of the bills recovered in the Dayton area, tend to feel different — if those taking them pay attention.
“Bank tellers and bartenders are always the best,” Bagby said.
The Ohio Restaurant Association encourages members to reach out to their closest Secret Service office if they suspect they have received counterfeit bills, according to Jarrod A. Clabaugh, director of communications for the organization.
“We recently witnessed a spate of this activity in Central Ohio, and thus reached out to the U.S. Secret Service,” Clabaugh said. “According to the agency, this activity may not be contained to Central Ohio, where one man recently spent more than $5,000 in counterfeit cash at multiple businesses.”
One method counterfeiters use to deal with the paper is to alter existing bills, taking a $5 bill and using chemicals to bleach off the ink. They then print the features of a $100 bill over it. This method foils the counterfeit pens that merchants use. The pens, which are like highlighters, will leave a yellow mark on a bill printed on genuine paper. If the paper is wrong, the mark is brown.
“People rely so much on those counterfeit protection pens,” Bagby said.
Merchants should be particularly careful with $20s and $100s, which are the two most commonly counterfeited denominations. Bagby recommends that merchants and their employees learn about the features real bills have to thwart counterfeiters.
These include a “security thread” a plastic strip embedded in the paper that runs vertically up one side of the note; color-shifting ink that changes appearances as you shift the bill in the light; and watermarks of the presidents’ features. Printers cannot duplicate these features, Bagby said.
These features are visible if the bill is held up to the light. Bagby recommends looking at the watermark at the right side of the bill and checking — does the portrait there match the one printed in the middle?
“The watermark would still be Abraham Lincoln when it’s supposed to be Benjamin Franklin,” he said.
What to do if you suspect a counterfeit bill
• Keep the bill from the passer
• Delay the passer by some excuse, if possible, without putting yourself in danger
• Contact police
• Observe description of passer and passer’s vehicle
• Handle the bill carefully to preserve fingerprint evidence
• Write your initials and the date on an unprinted edge on the front of the bill, place it in an envelope and surrender it only to the police or U.S. Secret Service
Source: U.S. Secret Service
After learning of several recent instances of counterfeit money being passed at local businesses, the Dayton Daily News dug deeper, looking at how new technology has changed the game, both for counterfeiters and law enforcement. The Dayton Daily News is committed to writing public safety stories for our readers.