Site finds fun, sport in tracking cash `flow'

Bills: Where's George? players mark their money and hope others will log on to report where it travels.

April 25, 2002|By Aline McKenzie | Aline McKenzie,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Some people put identification bands on birds to track their migration. The truly intrepid put radio collars on wolves.

Then there are other trackers who like to mark, register and release money, hoping to learn exactly where it goes.

If someone finds the marked money and enters the "hit" at the Where's George? Web site (www.wheresgeorge.com), hobbyists get a little thrill.

"It's like train spotting," says Tom Walsh, a "Georger" from Georgia. "You either get it or you don't."

Players write "See where I've been. Track where I go. www. wheresgeorge.com" on the bills, hoping people will be interested enough to go to the Web site and enter the bill's serial number. Some write the note on the bill by hand, but serious "Georgers" get a rubber stamp made with the slogan.

Hank Eskin, a computer consultant from Brookline, Mass. created the site three years ago when he was struck by a "crazy idea."

"I wanted to learn how to build a Web site. I had no idea how big it would become," he says.

Today, more than a million people play the game, according to the Web site's statistics. And some are rather obsessive.

For instance, Walsh's teen-age son came in the other day and caught his father getting ready to iron money.

"He gave me that look that teen-agers have," Walsh says.

Almost all of his money gets stamped and registered, and he likes to pay cash for most things to ensure lots of "hits," he says. His score shows that about 16 percent of his bills are re-registered by new owners -- well above the average of 10 percent.

Here's how the game works:

If you find a bill that's been marked, go to the site and enter the serial number so that the person who first marked the bill knows where it is. Registering the bill allows you to see where it went. Then spend the bill as usual and go about your life.

Those who want to initiate the tracking process should write the message on a bill of any denomination, register the serial number at www.wheres george.com and spend the money.

Every now and then, check the site to see whether anyone has entered the bill. You'll get information on the location, travel time and speed that the bill moved.

That final stage can be fairly slow. There's about $600 billion in paper money circulating worldwide, according to the Treasury Department. Only about $97 million has been marked "Where's George?"

"There are some people who live vicariously through their money," jokes Scott Prizten, a Georger from Bryan, Texas.

Prizten, 33, got interested in the hobby when he came across it on the Internet. His goal is to get hits from every state in the union -- a "bingo" as it's known in the trade. "So far, I've got 42 states and the District of Columbia," he says.

Georgers compete for a "George Score," which takes into account how many bills they've entered, how many "hits" their bills get and so on. Most high-ranking players have entered about 60,000 bills. One has entered more than 124,000 bills.

They talk about "Wild Georges" (coming across a bill that someone else started) and "sleepers" (bills that go a long time between hits -- the record is three years).

"It's a fun, free diversion," Eskin says. The site is free, supported by advertising, sales of T-shirts and other memorabilia, and by users who pay a fee for extra features.

"It's the users who have really made it what it is," he says.

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