The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS -- Behind the counter of an Indianapolis Wendy's, Summer Masterson finds herself on the front lines of a widening war on counterfeiting.
The targets are the $10 and even the $5 bills once considered too small to bother checking. They're now flooding the market as they're mass-produced with increasingly sophisticated and accessible color copiers and inkjet printers.
The initial detective work often belongs to the fast-food and convenience store clerks to whom the bills are passed. But faced with a continuing increase in counterfeiting -- more than $54,000 in fake bills seized in Indiana in January, nearly five times the amount seized a decade before -- police say they are benefiting from increasingly sophisticated tools as well.
The Wendy's where Masterson works as a manager is equipped with a computerized verification safe that spits out bills it detects as counterfeit.
"Still," Masterson said, "when you're really busy and swarmed with customers and you've got a young person at the register trying to hurry, you sometimes find out you have (counterfeit bills) at the end of the day."
A crime on the rise
So far this year, authorities across Indiana have collected fake bills with a face value of more than $77,000. They came in $100, $50, $20, $5 and even $1 bills -- and those are just the ones that got caught.
According to an article in the New York Times in January, the Secret Service -- which was created in 1865 to stop the counterfeiting of U.S. currency -- seized nearly $81 million in fake money in the fiscal year that ended in October.
Counterfeit cases are common, said U.S. Secret Service Agent Lewis Robinson, because counterfeiting has never been easier.
"You used to need some skills and (some equipment) to counterfeit currency," Robinson said. "You had to make the negative and make the plate and have the printing press and print the notes."
"Now," he said, "with the technology of color copying machines, computers and inkjet printers, all I've got to do is put my note on the scanner and scan it -- and then just manipulate the images with whatever photo software I have and print it out."
The Indianapolis police and other local agencies eventually turn their counterfeit investigations over to Robinson.
"But counterfeiting is not a victimless crime," he said. "Whoever is the last person to unknowingly get stuck with a counterfeit bill has lost whatever amount of money they thought they had with that bill."
'Right out of their bottom line'
Retailers often learn they have received counterfeit bills once they have deposited the day's cash at a bank, said Jay Ricker, who owns 51 convenience store/gas stations in Indianapolis and surrounding counties.
"They have lost whatever that bill is," he said. "It comes right out of their bottom line."
Ricker has invested in specialized safes for his stores that read money as it is fed into the machines -- spitting out any bills the systems detect to be counterfeit. Employees are instructed to immediately feed any big or suspicious-looking bills.
But the safes cost about $7,000 apiece, too expensive for some small business-owners -- and as at Masterson's Wendy's, sometimes the fake bills are spotted too late.
"We've still occasionally had a problem," Ricker said, "with counterfeits winding up in cash drawers."
Increasingly sophisticated methods
The old standby method of marking on bills with counterfeit-detection markers is not always reliable. In general, when one uses such a marker, a real bill will yield a yellowish brown mark. A fake bill will produce a black mark.
Increasingly, however, counterfeiters are using real five-dollar bills to create $20, $50 or $100 bills -- using chemicals to scrub off the ink applied by the U.S. Treasury Department and replacing it with their own careful application of larger-bill designs.
Robinson held a purported $100 bill up to fluorescent lights and sure enough, beside the dominant portrait of Benjamin Franklin was a smaller watermark image of Abraham Lincoln.
Despite the technology that makes counterfeiters' jobs easier, Robinson said, those making fake money still cannot replicate the exact look and feel of the real thing.
"Look at this portrait of Andrew Jackson," Robinson said, comparing a real $20 bill with a fake one. "Here, he's 3D and lifelike, and here he's flat. He doesn't jump off the paper at you. That's what you miss with (a digital printer). You can't reproduce these fine lines using the (available technologies)."
Money handlers, he noted, can be trained to look for other indicators money is real. The cotton-linen paper of U.S. currency, for example, has small randomly disbursed red and blue fibers. Bills have telltale watermarks that can be seen when held up to a light, such as the faces of the same figures featured in the portraits or the numerals representing the denomination.
Real bills also have color-shifting ink in certain locations that changes hues as the note is tilted 45 degrees. Bills also have clear polyester security threads that run vertically through them.
More information is available at secretservice.gov or newmoney.gov. The federal government also prints full-color, glossy "Know Your Money" brochures available to anyone.
Using a digital printer
Banks are generally better at catching counterfeit bills than stores, restaurants or individual consumers, Robinson said. Tellers are experienced in handling money and often better trained than retail employees in spotting fake bills. They, too, have special equipment.
"The currency-counting machines that banks use will spit out counterfeit or suspected counterfeit notes," Robinson said. "(They) incorporate counterfeit detectors that identify counterfeit notes using magnetic sensors, ultraviolet bulbs and infra-red light to check for watermarks, and intricate markings. When a suspected note is spit out by the currency counter, they will look at the note. If they suspect the note to be counterfeit, they will forward the note to us."
"Manufacturing counterfeit United States currency or altering genuine currency to increase its value is a violation of Title 18, Section 471 of the United States Code," reads the U.S. Secret Service website, "and is punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to 15 years, or both."
The same possible penalties apply to those who knowingly possess counterfeit money "with fraudulent intent," the law states.
Source: U.S. Secret Service
The Indianapolis Star