BLOOMINGTON — Cashiers at crowded stores and servers at dimly lit bars are too busy to notice the crime. A customer pays for an item with a $20, $50 or $100 bill and leaves with their change.
Not until later, when employees are counting money, will someone realize the bill was a fake, according to the U.S. Secret Service, the agency that investigates the thousands of dollars in counterfeit money pouring into Illinois businesses each year.
With technology making it easier to duplicate money, Central Illinois has recorded an increase in the number of phony bills passed to businesses in recent years, said Eric Pingolt, resident agent in charge of the Secret Service’s office in Springfield.
Computer technology, color printers and advanced software virtually allows anyone to make counterfeit money from their own home. Pingolt said the agency has even caught high school students counterfeiting U.S. currency.
"In the past, you could pretty well profile the counterfeiter. It was a skill. The person had to know how to use an offset printing press," Pingolt said. "What’s come along is the casual counterfeiter. Now, anyone with a computer can do it."
The Springfield office investigates all of Illinois’ counterfeit cases south of Chicago. Pingolt said the district seized more than $176,000 in fake money in 2005. And the Twin Cities and Peoria contributed more than their usual share.
"We saw the numbers in our district going up and we started taking a more aggressive approach," said Pingolt, who said the number of federal prosecutions of counterfeiters doubled last year in response to the growing trend.
Normal police Detective Beth Acuncius, who investigates white-collar crimes, rarely came across counterfeit money when she started with the department 14 years ago. She estimates Normal now has 20 to 25 complaints each year.
"I don’t know exactly how people are doing it, but they are," Acuncius said of the computer programs used to duplicate money. "In the last five years, we’ve been seeing more and more of it."
In Bloomington, the city had 38 cases involving counterfeit money, said Detective Rick Barkes. The complaints came from gas stations, restaurants, stores and bars.
Although technology has made it easier to replicate money, Barkes said the government has included many security features to each bill that also makes spotting the phonies a lot easier for businesses. An example would be the water marks and security fibers on genuine bills that many counterfeiters can’t copy, Barkes said.
Opportunity is what most counterfeiters look for when passing phony bills. Many times that comes with the crowds at large stores or busy gas stations where cashiers likely won’t remember the counterfeiter or notice that a bill just doesn’t look right, Acunucius said.
"More often than not it’s one $20 (bill) at a time," Acuncius said, adding counterfeiters typically don’t use bigger bills as much because they draw suspicion. "They might run from gas station to gas station and buy a pack of gum so they can get money back."
Some involved in counterfeiting from their home computers may not think the crime is a serious offense, but it does carry big-time consequences, Pingolt said. Someone convicted of possessing a counterfeit bill faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine between $5,000 and $15,000.
Pingolt, who would not provide more specific statistics about counterfeiting in downstate Illinois, said the more aggressive prosecution of counterfeiters in the last year has so far had a positive impact in Illinois. Pingolt said there’s been a 50 percent drop in the amount fake money during the first two months of 2006 compared to last year.
The Secret Service has always gone after counterfeiters, but the rise of casual counterfeiting spurred a more aggressive approach in recent years, Pingolt said. The agency was specifically concerned because street gangs have gotten into manufacturing counterfeit money to buy drugs.
"When you got the casual counterfeiter out there, you have so many people doing this," Pingolt said. "We’re seeing the influx in terms of counterfeit money. We saw the trend coming and we want to get ahead of it before it gets beyond us."
The following are some tips from the U.S. Secret Service to help you spot counterfeit money.
- All bills are printed with ink that changes color. A bill will be green when you look at it directly and turn black when you view it from an angle. Counterfeiters usually don’t attempt to duplicate this.
- Whether it’s Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson or James Monroe, every bill contains the portrait of a historical American figure. Hold the bill up to the light and you should see a smaller image of the same leader.
- Red and blue security fibers are embedded inside all U.S. currency. When the bill is held to the light, the fibers can be seen between the two pieces of paper that comprise a bill. Counterfeiters only copy the fibers onto paper.
SOURCE: U.S. Secret Service; Compiled by Brett Nauman