Merchants get lesson in counterfeit money

Secret Service tutorial prompted by passing of fake bills in the area

March 03, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Last month a clerk at the Holiday Inn in downtown Baltimore accepted two phony $100 bills from a customer, never realizing they were worth nothing but the paper they were printed on.

That bit of larceny cost the West Lombard Street hotel $200 and prompted it to alert nearby businesses. The alarm, in turn, led to a 90-minute tutorial on counterfeit money put on yesterday by the U.S. Secret Service.

"This is the note that was passed at the Holiday Inn," Special Agent John T. Pessia told 25 downtown merchants and hotel workers, holding aloft the fake Ben Franklin in a protective plastic sleeve.

To the amateur eye, the bill looked to be legal tender. But it had flaws. The watermark was too dark and detailed to be authentic. And while a genuine $100 bill appears green or black depending on the angle, the counterfeit note stayed one color.

Counterfeit money is a problem the Secret Service battles daily, in addition to protecting the president. Pessia said an estimated $70 million of it is churning through the nation's economy -- a large sum but just 0.02 percent of all currency in circulation.

Downtown Baltimore, while it has not seen an increase in bogus bills lately, has its share of the problem.

"There is counterfeit money being passed every day in the city," said Todd W. Kreisher, assistant to the special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Baltimore office.

The regular updating of bills has made life harder for counterfeiters, but they have made the most of advances in desktop publishing and printing.

"This [type of] note has been all the way around the Beltway and to Ocean City," Kreisher said of the phony $100 bills used at the Holiday Inn. Other bills that apparently came from the same source have reached the tills of BGE, the Home Depot and Giant Food.

"We've arrested several individuals with that note," Kreisher added. "We still haven't gotten all the way to the source."

Yesterday's session, put on by a group called the Downtown Safety Coalition, was about prevention. The message to merchants: Be vigilant.

Some cashiers run an iodine marker over a bill to see if it turns brown -- an indication that it is a paper counterfeit and not a genuine bill made of cotton and linen.

The marker test does not always work, though. A paper fake that has a chemical coating can elude detection by the marker, yielding a false negative.

The Treasury Department agents urged merchants to take several steps: Study the watermark, the change in color shade, the vertical security thread. Closer examination will reveal the telltale blue and red fibers of true money, along with tiny words printed on bills.

If a bill looks phony, Kreisher and Pessia said, a clerk should, if possible, hold on to it, delay the person, take down any identifying information and call police or the Secret Service at 443-263-1000.

Kathleen Decker, general cashier at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel, said she has been lucky. She spotted two fake $20 bills and a $10 bill a few months ago. The odd color is what tipped her off.

"We haven't been hit that hard yet," she said.

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