‘Tis the season for counterfeiters

Tom Joyce Staff Reporter

December 20, 2013

Stores are filled with shoppers at this time of year and money is changing hands left and right — which is a perfect scenario for counterfeiters.

The Better Business Bureau in North Carolina has issued a warning to both consumers and merchants about an influx of bogus bills during the Christmas shopping season.

Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson says the city — with its high concentration of retail establishments — experiences more cases of counterfeiting during the holiday period, although that hasn’t been as big a problem so far this Christmas as in the past.

Still, counterfeit currency has still showed up here, including earlier this month at Walgreens on U.S. 601.

The fact more transactions occur during the shopping season creates a climate for counterfeit money to be passed. The confusion associated with crowded stores and longer lines at checkout counters makes those receiving money less likely to examine it closely.

Another factor that promotes the continuing problem with counterfeiters is improved computer and printing technology, the police chief added, “which can allow them to better replicate the currency.”

In Mount Airy, the largest problems are seen with smaller denominations — $20 bills or less, which happens for a reason, Watson said. While store personnel might scrutinize a $100 bill for its authenticity, they are less likely to do so for smaller-value notes.

“Lower denominations are less likely to attract attention from retailers or cashiers,” Watson said. “I think the reason they choose these is it’s not a large amount and it’s something easily passed through.”

In some cases surfacing locally, counterfeit bills have been detected in money already taken in at a business. With others, bogus bills are identified when shoppers present them at the point of purchase after they are received unknowingly, meaning the consumers are victimized as well.

How To Check

The Better Business Bureau’s tips to avoid being victimized by counterfeiters include checking for duplicated serial numbers on groups of bills received at the same time. If the serial numbers are the same, the money is counterfeit.

Watson said this scenario usually doesn’t occur in Mount Airy, with criminals tending to spread bills out among different businesses and not spending many at any one location.

Counterfeit detector pens that are on the market allow a bill to be checked for authenticity — which is verified when a yellow mark results on the money, whereas a black mark means it is suspect.

But the marking method can be undermined by a new strategy employed by increasingly sophisticated counterfeiters who are being compared to amateur chemists. They have learned how to bleach the ink off low-denomination bills, or “wash” them, then reprint a higher denomination on the same paper. With some using the original ink, this circumvents the marker pens.

This was the case with a counterfeiting ring uncovered recently in Buncombe County in the Asheville area, which bleached money with oven cleaner and imprinted new images on the bills. Its members have received prison sentences of up to two years.

But simply touching the money can be one of the best ways to make sure it is real, Watson said. “Some of the newer currency that has come in has a certain feel to it,” he said of the more-modern bills that contain raised ink.

The U.S. Secret Service further recommends checking bills’ portraits, Federal Reserve seals and borders — all of which will be clear and crisp on genuine money and faded or flat on counterfeit currency.

Counterfeit bills tend to be smoother, which is the case with bogus money the city police department has collected here and stored for evidence.

“Some of them are just blatant,” Watson said of the inferior qualities noted with counterfeit money.

The Better Business Bureau and other experts say that simply being aware of the potential presence of counterfeiting and taking a little extra time to confirm the genuineness of bills— even during the busy shopping season — can pay dividends.

Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or