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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Counterfeiters' dirty trick: Bleaching bills is counterfeiters' trick

Doug Guthrie / The Detroit News


Crafty counterfeiters are giving a new meaning to the term money laundering. Crooks are circumventing technology intended to stop fraud by washing or bleaching the ink from lower-denomination bills and reprinting them as larger denominations with sophisticated computer scanners and printers.

The bills look and feel real because they are printed on real government currency paper. They can't be detected by iodine test pens used by most cashiers to check for fakes because the paper is chemically correct.

As retailers hope for a return in consumer confidence during the holiday shopping season, U.S. Secret Service agents have visited Metro Detroit retailers to warn about the sophisticated counterfeiting technique that typically blossoms at this time of year.

Police across the nation are reporting an uptick in the appearance of counterfeit money. A sudden influx was noted earlier this month in suburban Atlanta. Washed or bleached $20, $50 and $100 bills were reported last month in California, New York, Washington, Louisiana and North Carolina.

An Eastpointe man was convicted of misdemeanor fraud last month for attempting to buy a used commercial snowblower in Plymouth with a fistful of $100 bills that started life as $5 notes.

"These are the best counterfeits I've seen," said 35th District Judge Michael Gerou, who spent his college years working in a bank. "One at a time, you could pass these all day long. Trying to do it eight at a time is what tripped our guy."

David Allan Barlow, 24, of Eastpointe was convicted in a trial before Gerou on a false pretenses charge. He got a 17-day jail sentence and promised to reimburse the Plymouth resident who sold him the snowblower.

So far, Thomas Frey, 40, hasn't seen his snowblower or the cash.

Barlow hasn't been charged with the more serious federal crime of counterfeiting. A U.S. Secret Service spokesman in Detroit declined to say if there are any ongoing criminal investigations involving bleached bills in Metro Detroit, but added agents are well aware of the technique.

And they are interested in speaking with Barlow. Federal counterfeiting charges can result in prison sentences of up to 20 years.

Barlow could not be located by The News, and his lawyer didn't return calls. Barlow testified at his trial that he got the bills from a friend, who claimed he got them in payment last year for a car he sold in Detroit.

Frey said Barlow and two others with him acted nervous when he complained the eight bills "felt funny." Frey also noticed a white plastic grocery sack was partially covering the license plate on the sport utility vehicle Barlow had loaded up with the snowblower.

"That's when he got confrontational, and they took off," said Frey.

The first Plymouth police officer to arrive declared the bills legal when he swiped one with an iodine pen. Later, a detective noticed all eight bills shared the same two serial numbers.

Clues often overlooked

The government has incorporated new techniques to make money harder to copy, like shimmering and color-shifting inks. But the high-tech efforts are lost on the average person and most retailers. Relying solely on inexpensive iodine test pens, as most retail cashiers do, will not catch washed or bleached counterfeit money because the chemistry is correct. U.S. currency paper also contains tiny colorful fibers, mostly red and blue, that can't be copied by normal computer printers.

Most merchants also don't bother with recommended ultraviolet lights that cause a vertical polyester strip embedded on the left side of bills worth $5 and above to glow in their denomination-specific coded colors. Even the simplest test is commonly ignored -- matching the image in the watermark in the right margin of the newest bills with the face on the front.

Because the fake $100s in Plymouth were printed on what started out as real $5 bills, vertical polyester strips in the bills clearly state "USA FIVE," and a hidden watermark image of Abraham Lincoln is visible near the right margin instead of the image of Benjamin Franklin normally found on $100 bills.

"It may look genuine at first glance," said Secret Service spokesman Mark Meyerand. "But if you look at the right security features you will quickly know it is not genuine."

Learn to avoid scam

Frey said he often lists items like his snowblower for sale on the Internet, but now insists on making the final transaction at his bank, where the cash is checked by a teller before the sale is finalized.

"By telling the buyer we will do it this way, if they are legit, they won't care," Frey said. Cashiers at Gigante Prince Valley Super Mercado, 5931 Michigan Ave. in Detroit, regularly check the authenticity of $20 bills and above by holding them up to the light.

"It's just good business sense," said Joe Gappy, a member of the family that owns the busy grocery, deli and mobile phone shop.

"We can't afford to take fakes, but it's the toughest thing in the world to tell a customer you can't take their money because it's counterfeit."

Tom Scott, Michigan Retailers Association senior vice president for communication, said his organization has issued warnings to retailers about counterfeiting in the past, but he was unaware of the new threat of washed or bleached bills

"Most money is transacted in a quick process. Most of us aren't prepared enough to know the difference," Scott said.

"And at the holidays, there are people in line. Good customer service includes things like getting people checked out quickly, so it takes commitment to take the time to check."