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Beware of counterfeit bills, especially during the holidays

Everyone loves to collect the "Benjamins." But are those $100 bills real? Sharpie, the maker of the popular markers, wants consumers to check the bills out for themselves. So the maker of Counterfeit Detector Markers that store clerks use to check your money has made the pens available for consumers to check the bills themselves.

It seems timely, because during the holiday season counterfeiting typically rises. Counterfeit currency passed on the streets throughout the Tampa Bay area increases from an average $10,000 to $12,000 a week to as much as $17,000 a week at Christmas time, according to the U.S. Secret Service.

And anyone who unknowingly accepts a counterfeit bill but does not check it before leaving a store (or a bank, though that is less likely), is stuck with it. Once you leave the store or bank, law enforcement says the fake money is yours to keep. (Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas!)

Even so, before you go out and plop down the $9.99 for a three pack of counterfeit detector markers at the local Office Depot, there are some things you ought to know:

The Secret Service says there are better ways to determine whether money is fake than spending precious dollars in a tight economy.

"We don't advocate the pen," said John Joyce, special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service Tampa Bay Field Office. "We believe in education. We would prefer that people know their money."

Part of the problem is the pen does not identify all counterfeit currency. The marker, which turns brown or a dark color on some counterfeit bills, really tells you that the bill is made of paper, when real money is made of linen and cotton fibers. "It's cloth," Joyce said.

Expert counterfeiters don't use paper. Nowadays, they bleach a $1 bill or $5 bill and reprint it as a $20, $50 or $100.

Still, Sharpie says the marker does serve a purpose at a time of year when thieves seek to pilfer every dollar they can from unwitting shoppers.

"The Sharpie Counterfeit Detector Marker is effective at detecting many common forms of counterfeit U.S. currency bills," said Whitney Kelly, a spokeswoman for Sharpie. "It does not promise to detect all counterfeit bills.

"Today's criminals have developed a variety of advanced technologies that make detection difficult using even the most sophisticated methods and devices," Kelly said. "There is no one single measure that can detect all instances of counterfeit bills."

Perhaps, but here's the Edge for those with a penchant for picking up bills bigger than a $5 or a $10:

• Check the bill out yourself. Look for the security thread running through the bill that tells the U.S. denomination of the bill. And find the watermark in the portrait of the president on the currency or the red and blue threads embedded in the bill.

• Visit the Secret Service website for more ways to help detect counterfeit currency and guard against forgery at http://www.secretservice.gov/money_detect.shtml.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Beware of counterfeit bills, especially during the holidays 12/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 9:09pm]
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