Agents seize phony money

Bills passed in Bel Air tied to counterfeit ring operating in Bulgaria

$3.5 million printed

Courier arrested

bag held `well-done' copies of U.S. $100 notes

June 29, 1999|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

A handful of $100 bills passed at a Bel Air 7-Eleven store has put federal authorities on the trail of one of the world's largest counterfeiting rings, responsible for more than $3.5 million in phony bills printed in Bulgaria.

Secret Service agents said yesterday that a Bulgarian native, Valeri Gueorguiev, was a courier who delivered tens of thousands in counterfeit cash to Maryland. He was arrested last week in Bel Air with a duffel bag crammed with $62,700 in fake money, authorities said.

"They're pretty well-done notes," said Richard A. Rhode, head of the U.S. Secret Service in Baltimore. "We've been alerting malls around town to try and educate people. These bills are so good they even re-create the red and blue fibers you see on real dollars."

In an affidavit filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, prosecutors said the bills were printed by a secret offset press in Bulgaria which makes "the most frequently passed counterfeit currency in the United States and the world."

The bogus bills are facsimiles of the government's newly designed $100 note, which federal officials had hoped would curb counterfeiting. Prosecutors said the bills seized had nearly flawlessly copied markings which designers had expected would make counterfeiting extremely difficult.

Authorities said the Bulgarian printing press is still operating, but its location is unknown. Rhode and Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew C. White refused to comment on whether Gueorguiev's arrest may lead international authorities nearer to the press and its operators.

But even with a break in the case, authorities said counterfeit bills coming out of Bulgaria may be tough to stop -- mainly because the Eastern European country has a reputation for prolific counterfeiting. And the problem doesn't stop at phony money.

Among the counterfeit items produced and distributed in Bulgaria, according to Bulgarian officials, are such things as paprika made from red brick dust, soap powder made from salt, baby herb medicine made with mud and top-label whiskey made with such low-quality liquor that it kills more than 400 Bulgarians a year.

The country has a monthly magazine titled Mente -- Bulgarian slang for a counterfeit product -- to try to help residents identify bogus products and money.

Rhode said the counterfeit money being passed in the United States is unlike many of the phony bills distributed by local frauds. Many of the locally produced bills are made with a personal computer and medium-quality printer.

"The offset printing process we're seeing with these bills requires a lot more knowledge," he said. "You also need a knowledge of photography in order to make the plates. Once you have them, you can run off a few million dollars in a single run."

Yesterday, Gueorguiev, 37, sat quietly at a hearing in which his lawyer asked for a Bulgarian interpreter. Authorities said that he has lived in Ontario, Canada, for six years and has worked as a street vendor, selling items from the back of his car.

Gueorguiev came to Maryland last week to visit another Bulgarian native, Silvia Stoimenova, who lives in Bel Air, court papers said. Stoimenova had been holding a package of about $20,000 in counterfeit money for Gueorguiev, who told her last month to take care of the money and that "he would return to pick it up in a few days," the affidavit said.

Unbeknown to Gueorguiev, Stoimenova was arrested June 18 for allegedly passing about $11,000 worth of fake $100 bills. She used many of them to obtain money orders to pay bills and other expenses, authorities said.

Among the places she obtained money orders was a local post office, a Wawa convenience store and a 7-Eleven, authorities said. An alert Brinks security employee noticed that some of the bills were counterfeit after the company made a pickup at the 7-Eleven.

Secret Service agents tapped Stoimenova's phone after her arrest and listened to a phone conversation she had Thursday with Gueorguiev. In the call, Gueorguiev said he would be coming to Maryland from New York City that evening to pick up the money, court papers said.

Agents arrested Gueorguiev shortly after he arrived that night. They seized the duffel bag, which contained the $62,700 and $18,000 in genuine U.S. money, court papers indicate. He had also handed Stoimenova $9,700 worth of counterfeit money, which agents also seized, according to court papers.

Gueorguiev told the arresting agents that he "obtained the counterfeit currency from an individual in New York City named `Stefan' and that he was supposed to deliver it to an individual named `Ivan' in Toronto."

Pub Date: 6/29/99

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