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Counterfeit cash irks merchants in Hernando

SPRING HILL — Two weeks ago, Lisa Minor thumbed a $100 bill and held it up to the overhead light. The Spring Hill Natural Foods store manager knew what to look for.

Benjamin Franklin's portrait was printed on the outside, as it should be. She then searched for the founding father's hologram on the right side of the bill. Instead of finding the outline of his head, she spotted the face of Abraham Lincoln.

By then, she said, the woman who gave her the phony money had fled the store and sped away in a car. Minor called the authorities, and minutes later Hernando County sheriff's deputies had stopped a car and arrested 22-year-old Danielle Walters on charges of uttering a forged bill.

Minor was unimpressed at the quality of the bill she was passed, one of six that deputies say Walters had had in her possession.

"I think she should get extra time for poor workmanship," Minor said. "It was actually the worst counterfeit I've ever seen."

Minor scrutinized the bill so thoroughly because just a few months before that someone had passed a fake $50 bill in the store, and she didn't want to get burned again. After that incident, Detective Irene Gray — the Hernando County Sheriff's Office counterfeiting specialist — schooled Minor and her employees on how to analyze the cash they handle every day.

The money confiscated in that incident is connected to a broader scheme that authorities have monitored in other Florida counties, Gray said, adding that investigators are still pursuing the original manufacturers.

"In the larger scheme of things," Gray said, "we want the person who's making it, not just the person who's using it."

But last month's crime, Gray said, doesn't fit with most of the counterfeiting she's tracked in Hernando County. The $100 bill she said Walters tried to pass wasn't produced on plain paper from an InkJet printer, as they typically are in this area.

Instead, Gray said, the forgers bleached the ink out of $5 bills and then printed the makings of a $100 on top of the blank currency, which is made from cotton fibers.

Counterfeit-detecting markers, pen-like devices that contain an iodine solution that reacts with paper-based notes, are useless in exposing these fakes because they're printed on real currency.

Gray and other investigators have traced many of the fakes that have popped up in Hernando County back to drug transactions, in which dealers were paid with fraudulent cash.

People should pay as much attention to small bills as they do larger ones, she said. About twice a month, business owners call her to report they've received counterfeits, and they're most often $20s, not $50 or $100s.

Criminals, she said, likely use the smaller denominations because they know cashiers won't examine them as closely.

And the best way to ensure the bills are real?

"The easiest thing for any person to do is just hold it up to the light and look for that hologram," she said. "It would only take one second to verify that your presidents are matching."

Other details also can confirm or deny the bill's legitimacy: The ink in fakes tends to smudge or run; the edges on forged currency is often unevenly cut; and on the portrait side of money printed after 1999, the denomination number in the bottom right corner will appear different colors from different angles.

At Mykonos II off East Jefferson Street in Brooksville, someone paid for a meal last fall with a fake $100. Since then, a yellow note sits on the cash register that reads: "We are so sorry, we cannot accept $100 bills at this time!"

Like the one passed at the Natural Foods store, manager Mary Smith said the note was printed on a bleached $5 bill. On the rare occasion they take a large bill, usually from a regular customer, she and her staff inspect every one. "It's sad that we have to do it," she said. "It's a little disheartening."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

Counterfeit cash irks merchants in Hernando 02/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 7:21pm]
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