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Fake bills are rare but costly
Technology has changed the crime, how Secret Service fights it
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Raven Lingerfelt doesn't bother running a special pen across cash. She can see fake money and feel it, too.

Lingerfelt has worked as a store manager at Petro Fast Food Store in Murrayville for more than two years. Every so often money is passed that she recognizes right away as counterfeit.

At the end of January, it happened twice.

"One that got past the cashier, I saw it. The ink was faded, it was greenish and I know when there's no strip in it, it's not real," Lingerfelt said, describing the thin but distinct line that crosses a number of U.S. bills. "The 20s, I don't even mark them with the pen. To me that's kind of pointless."

She teaches her clerks how to spot phony bills by touch and close scrutiny. If they fail, they are the ones who end up answering for crimes they did not commit.

"Whoever takes the money has to pay for that. We turn to the cashier who is also struggling," Lingerfelt said. "You know they didn't do it on purpose. It gets busy and you can't look at every single one."

Counterfeiting less common
The Secret Service was founded in 1865 to stamp out fake money, a massive problem at the time. One-third or more of the paper currency circulating in the U.S. after the Civil War was illegitimate, said Special Agent Mark L. Ritchie.

Today, the fraction of counterfeit money to the whole - "less than one-one-hundredth of one percent" of 900 billion genuine U.S. dollars in the world today - is miniscule by comparison, he explained.

Yet the Secret Service dedicates investigative resources to tracking every forged bill reportedly passed, whether it's a bad scan job or a sophisticated print.

"It effects all of us if we're stuck with a counterfeit note," Ritchie said. "If you get stuck with a $100 note, you are out 100 dollars ... that's why we have to investigate each note that's passed."

The agency's investigations often begin with local authorities who answer calls from duped businesses.

Hall County Sheriff Office, for instance, responded to Lingerfelt's Petro store in the wake of a bogus $20 that was passed Jan. 27.

The incident report documented the first degree forgery crime, including the serial number of the fake bill. The money was turned over to the Secret Service, which tracks and connects fake serial numbers, if possible.

A number of officers interviewed for this story reported handling these types of cases the same way.

More often than not, the identity of the person who created and passed the billed is unknown, said Capt. Woodrow Tripp, commander of the sheriff's criminal investigation division.

"Many times it slips right through," he said. "They don't realize until it gets to the bank."

Offenders may target a weak store clerk and slip in a phony $100 after a real $20 during a particularly busy time of day at a department store.

Person-to-person cash transactions are vulnerable situations, too, with garage sales, flea markets and even drug deals presenting opportunities to men and women looking to score something for nothing.

"That's 100 percent profit," Tripp said of such drug transactions, in particular.

It was a drug investigation that led to last week's arrest of a Gainesville man accused of selling $1,500 in counterfeit $20s and $50s to undercover officers, said Lt. Scott Ware, commander of the Multi Agency Narcotics Squad and the Gang Task Force.

The arrest followed a two-week undercover operation involving Ware's officers and the Secret Service, which funded the undercover purchase, deputies said.

How the tip arrived to Ware's task force as well as the number of bills secured during the sting and arrest were somewhat unusual for the department, deputies said.

Bills turning up here and there at retail places such as fast-food restaurants, convenience and box stores is a more routine complaint.

Capt. Andy Smith, lead investigator for Oakwood Police Department, estimated the last forgery arrest made in his city was last spring. Fake money is manufactured and disposed of quick, making suspects hard to catch.

One exception Smith recalled took place about 10 years ago. Oakwood police nabbed a suspect as he made fake money with a scanner and printer in his car.

"Everything being home based and now being mobile, (they are able to) do all this stuff," Smith said.

"As fate would have it, we were able to catch the individual in the process. But that doesn't happen everyday."

Craftsmanship fades
While the economy has little effect on the number of counterfeit bills that surface, technology has changed the crime and how the Secret Service fights it.

The number of "digital notes" have significantly outpaced those printed on presses since the mid-90s, Ritchie said. Offenders typically produce enough bills to pass over the weekend and that's all, making evidence difficult to come by.

"They don't want to be stuck with it," Ritchie said. "They don't want have someone see it piled up in their apartment."

This method is far different than it used to be. "

Counterfeiting once required craftsmanship and elaborate machinery. Typically, these culprits would make money by the millions and distribute their product to middlemen, who then passed it.

"Years ago, 15, 20, 30 and beyond, counterfeiting was an art. You had to be a specialist at it," Ritchie said. "Now what we see is an average person, not a specialist, who has so-so computer skills. ... We've had to change our whole investigative philosophy."

Agents, police and clerks like Lingerfelt have to be quick to notice fakes, the appearance of which change like fashion trends.

She described a pattern taking place at another Petro store, which accepted real $5 bills that had been bleached out and reprinted to appear as $20s or $100s.

By doing so, fakers pass the same coarse paper used by the Department of the Treasury, Ritchie said, which often foils the cashier's pen.

"Recently, we've noticed a big spike in bleached $5 notes," Ritchie said. "It will have the genuine paper but wrong ink. So when you hold it up in the light, you'll see the image of Abe Lincoln in the paper but Ben Franklin will be printed on it. That's an obvious sign that it's a counterfeit."

Obvious or not, questioning a customer who passes a fake can be tricky, too. Sometimes they are the ones who have been scammed, Lingerfelt said.

"The first time I received a fake bill was two years ago," she said. "The customer had no idea. He had just come in with a $10 bill to get some gas."

Spotting the difference
Education is a key tactic in combatting counterfeiters, Ritchie said.

He referenced the "Know Your Money" section on the Secret Service web site as giving citizens and businesses the knowledge they need to tell U.S. currency from the wannabes.

"The pen is fine as one of your tools to check counterfeit money," Ritchie said. "It shouldn't be your only tool that you rely on."

Specifics are conveyed in detail at Gainesville's Business Police Academy, an annual program hosted in the fall.

Agents from the Secret Service's Atlanta field office speak about the topic during the 10-week class that touches on a number of crime prevention subjects. The agency also conducts information sessions with law enforcement, who are armed with the latest investigative strategies.

Retail video surveillance has advanced and can help identify suspects. Newer coin machines are outfitted with electronics that can turn back a fake buck. And at least one officer mentioned that some scanners and printers are equipped with security features that deny currency copiers.

Problem is, the bad guys keep advancing, too, said Lt. David Spillers, assistant chief of Flowery Branch Police Department.

"Every time you have an improvement, every time HP improves a printer, you're gonna have good notes getting turned out," he said. "And every time honest citizens find a way to detect a bad note, the criminals will work just as hard to circumvent that latest technology."