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Counterfeit Cash On the Rise

The next time you have a Lincoln in your hands, take a real close look -- he might be an imposter.

Thanks to high-quality, low-cost laser and inkjet color printers, counterfeit bills are turning up all over the country, and not just in large denominations.

"Technology has certainly had an impact on counterfeiting," said Marc Connolly, a special agent with the Secret Service in Washington.

"As recently as 1995, computer-generated notes (using a PC and a color printer) made up less than one half of 1 percent of notes passed domestically," Connolly said.

Only six years later, in fiscal 2001, "computer-generated notes made up 39 percent," he added.

But no matter whether they're printed with computers or the old-fashioned way, this much is clear: Counterfeit bills are on the rise.

Statistics show that $47.5 million in funny money was passed in 2001, up $15.5 million from 1995.

And it's no longer just the $100 bill that should be held up to a light or scanned by a pen.

"We have seen an increase in smaller denominations," said Connelly, adding that "twenty dollars is most common domestically."

Trini, 24, a New York City resident, had grown accustomed to seeing high-denomination bills scrutinized, but she was shocked recently to find a fake fiver in her wallet.

"I was going through my money at work and thought, hey, this looks weird," she said. "I never thought someone would go to that trouble for five dollars.

"I compared it to another five dollars, and it was so bad, so many things obviously off -- the color, the president's head size, the feel of the paper -- and it felt really frustrating, because I thought, does that mean I have to really look at one-dollar and five-dollar bills now?

"You can't always do that."

Connolly says yes, you do have to do that, because it is illegal to knowingly pass a counterfeit note, even if someone has passed it to you.

He said a suspect note should be compared to a genuine note in the same series and same denomination.

"If you realize it's counterfeit, delay the passer," he said. And if you can't do that, then he advises obtaining a description of the person who gives it to you.

"Limit the handling of the note, initial and date it, and surrender it to law enforcement or the Secret Service," he said. "It is contraband."

You could pick up a counterfeit bill almost anywhere -- even from an ATM machine or a bank teller -- and unless you act quickly, it's as good as Monopoly money.

"Ultimately it is up to the consumer to be alert," a Citibank spokesman said. "Customers should certainly look at bills before they leave the branch. If they are suspicious, let us know immediately."

The government doesn't reimburse you when you turn in someone else's criminal cash.

"When you forward the bill you get a receipt from law enforcement you surrendered it to and write it off on your income tax," said Connolly. "That's the best you can do."

Meanwhile, the best a counterfeiter can do has improved. Before 1995 the most common counterfeiting method was labor intensive, expensive, and required large equipment.

"Now many more people have access to desktop publishing equipment and have the ability to use it. They can store the image on file and print on demand," said Connolly. "We've seen more people involved in counterfeiting, but at the same time producing in smaller quantities."

Secret Service counterfeit busts have shot up dramatically; there were over 5,000 counterfeit arrests made in fiscal 2001.

"We track each and every counterfeit note," Connolly said. "We keep very detailed passing stats and can see week to week increases and decreases. Also keep very close tracking of the identifiers of a note to be able to tie families of notes together -- helps us determine if we have significant increase in an area."

A Brooklyn, N.Y., bar recently got duped by devious ducats. Robert Gagnon, owner of The Gate, said these outbreaks usually occur in neighborhoods and then move on once the word gets around.

"I talk with all the other business owners quite a bit," Gagnon said. "Before I took any bad bills, one bar owner told me that he had gotten a couple."

The bar has had a rash of phony bills twice in five years that Gagnon described as bad looking and bad feeling, "more like cloth, instead of the feel of real bill that is almost greasy."

Gagnon posted a sign behind the bar in bright red letters: "Counterfeit $20s and $10s," to alert staff and patrons to the problem.

Ripon, Wis., also had a spate of counterfeit bills pass through their city recently, and the police worked with the Secret Service to stop the flow. "The particular (serial number) bill passed in our city has been passed in maybe 20 different areas throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota," said Sgt. John Teachout of the Ripon Police Department.

Back in New York, Trini said she was aware she should take her bogus bill out of circulation, but she didn't want to be the one to take the loss.

"It's still five dollars -- I don't want to lose it," she said. "So I tried to give it to a cab driver and he said, 'Wait, this doesn't look real,' and gave it back.

"Then I tried again at my laundromat. They didn't bother to look at it. I was happy when I got rid of it."

Technically, that made Trini a criminal, Connolly said, and he warned people stuck with fake bills not to follow her route.

"You are exposing yourself to federal prosecution if you knowingly possess or pass counterfeit money," he said.

And counterfeit crimes are punishable by up to 20 years.