The next time you get a $100 bill or even $20 bill around Tampa Bay, you might want to give it a pretty close look. About $160,000 in fake currency wound its way through wallets and cash registers in the area last year, federal agents say, and more than $2-million in bogus bills was seized.
"There's always lots (of counterfeit) being passed here," said Charles Korff, acting special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service office in Tampa. "We get lots of tourists, from South America, England, New York, who bring it with them, knowingly or otherwise.
"The passing activity here is pretty high for what is considered a pretty small district."
Several larger metropolitan areas absorbed much less bogus cash, according to Secret Service statistics. St. Louis reported $34,000, Minneapolis-St. Paul $26,000, and Denver $55,000.
Korff's nine-agent office keeps busy chasing the funny money. They average 30 arrests a year in counterfeiting cases.
They're even skittish about art; they forced the Tampa Museum of Art to reconfigure a catalog of works now on display by J.S.G. Boggs, an artist who draws money.
Agents hear about counterfeit money from banks, businesses, printing supply shops and informants. Recent cases have run the gamut from people passing a few bills to those printing thousands of phony Franklins.
Three Pinellas men were convicted Friday of selling thousands of bogus $100 bills around Clearwater, but jurors could not reach a verdict on the man accused of
printing the bills in his St. Petersburg cabinet shop. Prosecutors suspect the sophisticated operation may have produced about $1-million in fake $20 and $100 bills.
That case was the latest in a long list, including:
Last December, agents dug up more than $1-million in counterfeit money buried in suitcases in northwest Tampa. The money had been printed for use in a drug deal that never materialized. Two professional wrestlers and a rock group guitarist were convicted in the case.
An Illinois man was arrested in Palm Harbor last fall after authorities said he supplied an undercover agent with the paper on which to print counterfeit money and later accepted $60,000 worth of phony money.
In April, two well-respected Spring Hill businessmen were charged with printing about $785,000 of fake bills that were passed all over the North Suncoast and the Northeast.
Nationwide, almost $14-million worth of counterfeit U.S. currency was passed on the public last year. The government finds it all eventually, when the money gets to Federal Reserve Banks.
Historically, the biggest deterrent to the crime has been the difficulty of printing passable currency, said Bill Ebert, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's counterfeit division in Washington, D.C.
But new technology, including color copiers and laser printers, has changed all that. Now, your co-worker could become a counterfeiter on a whim.
"You can sit at a computer, work on the color patterns, fine line quality, take your floppy home and keep refining it without anyone knowing what's going on," Ebert said. "It's much easier than learning to be a lithographer."
"It could become a crime of convenience," Korff said. "Someone in an office who needs $20 for lunch can just whip one off. The amount of people who could get into this in a haphazard way is amazing."
To combat the new counterfeiters, the U.S. Treasury plans to print new currency with more sophisticated copy-protection.
Leah Akbar, a staff member at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, said new bills soon will have a polyester band woven into them that will be visible only when the bill is held up to the light, and will feature "USA" and the bill's denomination. Copiers could not reproduce the band or printing.
New bills also will feature the phrase "United States of America" microprinted around the presidents' portraits, Akbar said. To the naked eye, the printing will look like wavy lines. Even high-tech counterfeiters should not be able to reproduce the fine resolution of the microprinting, she said.
The government even has tried to get Canon, maker of high-quality color copiers, to provide lists of all owners of their product. The company says it can't.
Busy stores on busy days
Most counterfeiters sell their product on consignment, in quantities of several thousand dollars at a time, to others who then distribute it to people who will try to pass the counterfeit money. Typically, printers get back anywhere from 20 to 50 cents on the dollar from the passers and wholesalers.
The Secret Service says most passers target gasoline stations, department stores and other businesses where clerks are less likely to be trained to recognize counterfeit money. Passers prefer busy sales days, or near closing time, when clerks might be distracted.
Passers make a small purchase and get genuine money as change. Some poor counterfeit has been found in change machines.
Bars are favorite passing spots, one prosecutor said, because they often are dark, and money tends to get wet.
"Disney World used to be a very big target area," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Hayward, who has prosecuted several counterfeit cases. "But they've done quite a bit of training and their employees are familiar with recognizing counterfeit now."
Hayward said people have also been caught in the Orlando area with counterfeit travelers checks, Disney World tickets and even phony Polish zlotys. The counterfeiter of the fake Polish currency was sentenced last week to five years in prison; the judge didn't believe the man's defense that he intended to use the zlotys as wallpaper.
During the trial last week of the four Pinellas men, jurors got a chance to see counterfeit $100 bills and hear about the printing process. Experts explained that one of the most common ways to detect counterfeit money is to look for tiny red and blue fibers woven into the Treasury Department paper.
Counterfeiters often try to duplicate it by marking little red and blue lines on the paper.
Other tip-offs include the saw-tooth points around the circumference of the green Treasury Seal. On fake money, the points often are uneven or blunted. The fine screening pattern behind the portrait is usually too dark on counterfeit, and blurs into Andrew Jackson's hair, for example, on a $20 bill.
But without authentic currency for comparison, the fake $100 bills look perfect to the average person.
"We need more low-level deterrence," said Ebert, of the Secret Service's headquarters. "More ways for the citizenry to hold a bill up and tell a bill is counterfeit. Now more than in the past because of the technology."
The temptation to just print money and the challenge of passing it will always exist. "Once in a while you get someone who likes to tinker," Korff said. "But it's just greed, mainly. Money."