Mount Pleasant store owners see a faux shade of green.
Deanna Bayer closely inspects each and every bill that gets rung through her register at the Argyle Convenience Store on the corner of Park Road and Mount Pleasant Street NW. A small-business owner, Bayer has always had a strong interest in how money is made. But lately, her fascination has taken a more literal—or perhaps physical—manifestation.
Bayer’s husband and business partner, Rocky Rakani, shares her curiosity. Rakani uses his thumb to rub an incoming $20, to check if the “never-dry” ink that is used on U.S. legal tender smudges. It does. It’s not a foolproof test, though, since the latest batch of counterfeit bills circulating around the neighborhood seem to smudge as well.
Rakani then unsheathes an ultraviolet pen that reveals a clear watermark on the $20 bill. If the money had been counterfeit, the pen would have left a dark splotch on the paper. Although the ultraviolet pen gives Rakani additional assurance of authenticity, it’s an extra step that has several customers tapping their toes and grousing about the delay.
For Rakani, it’s well worth losing a little business. “He’s got two I can show you,” Bayer adds, nodding to her husband and shaking her head in disgust. “I can show you 10 [counterfeit bills] that I got yesterday.”
Bayer and Rakani aren’t the only suckers. In the past three to four weeks, several Mount Pleasant business owners have found subtractions on their statements as banks have ferreted out the funny money. And, after getting snookered for a couple hundred dollars, the couple has felt justified in taking extra precautions. “These are not strangers,” says Bayer, referring to her fairly local crowd of customers. “These are local Mount Pleasant people who are passing these bills.”
In the Northwest neighborhood, bogus bills have been purchasing a lot more than Atlantic Avenue and Park Place. “In that particular area…there is activity,” confirms Bill Albracht, assistant special agent in charge of the counterfeit squad for the U.S. Secret Service. The Secret Service, an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department, tracks down counterfeit manufacturers and distributors. “I’d be lying to you if I said there isn’t more activity. Are they a problem? Yeah, they’re a problem if you get stuck with them.”
“I turned one down Wednesday, in fact,” says Leo Bondas, owner of Sportsman’s Liquor on Mount Pleasant Street. “We’ve been getting a lot of them.” Bondas says he has heard that the money gets into circulation at 14th Street’s Latino nightclubs, where lighting is poor and cash is exchanged quickly.
Unlike Bayer and Rakani, Bondas proudly claims he hasn’t been taken for a ride yet: “We’ve always watched for counterfeit bills, but recently it’s way out of whack,” notes Bondas. “A lot of people are getting stuck bad.”
Bondas offers a few helpful tips he uses to catch impostors. “If you’re used to handling cash, like I am, you can feel it right away,” he says, noting that U.S. currency is printed on high-quality paper made of cotton and linen. It has a strong, silky feel to it, different from the regular paper you might find at Kinko’s.
Most of the counterfeit bills are what is called “P-notes,” says Albracht, because they are run off computer laser printers. “What they do is, they scan a twenty or fifty— blow it up, clean it up, then print it up with a color printer, cut them up, and off they go.”
As Bayer rings up some toilet paper and some Mickey’s Big Mouths at the Argyle, her husband continually compares suspect twenties to the genuine article. “Look for differences, not similarities,” he instructs—and pay close attention to the quality of printing and paper. The first thing to notice about the recent counterfeits is that, although the print job may be exquisite, the quality of the paper is poor. And the bad notes are slightly smaller than legal tender.
On twenties, which happen to be in vogue this year in Mount Pleasant, the portrait of Andrew Jackson stands out distinctly from the background; on counterfeit twenties, the portrait is flat and lifeless, with details merging into the background. Under ordinary light, a second, smaller image of Jackson can be seen just to the right side of the seal on a genuine 1996-series $20 bill. On a bogus twenty, there is no second portrait of Jackson.
“Mount Pleasant is one area that’s hot right now,” adds Albracht. “What happens is, it will come up and be active for a while until we crack down.” During 1998, the Secret Service confiscated almost $40 million in counterfeit bills, up by $8 million from the previous year.
Bayer says the Secret Service has not responded to her numerous calls to report counterfeit activity. “I have a limited number of agents,” Albracht explains. “And, quite frankly, we work the bigger cases. We work counterfeiting cases the same way you’d work a drug case. We get the local guy and then work our way up the chain.”
Until the Secret Service takes more of a local interest, Mount Pleasant store owners will be left to their own devices. “I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and the ‘coin of the realm,’ so to speak, has been twenties,” says Albracht. “The next one, I’d have to say, is hundreds. There’s not many fives and tens. But hell, I’ve even seen counterfeit ones, and I always scratch my head and wonder why. You’d think that it would cost more to make with the paper and ink alone.”
One reason to print counterfeit ones, you might guess, is that a fake buck is a heck of a lot easier to pass than, say, a hundred. Albracht says it is teenage amateurs who usually decide to print single dollars. “We’ve found them in high school and junior high cafeterias,” he says. “Everybody knows [who] did it, because they make a big deal out of it.”
Albracht warns that manufacturing or distributing even a single phony buck is serious business, punishable with a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years imprisonment. “Plus, we will definitely seize the means and instruments of how you made this. We’ll seize your entire computer system,” says Albracht. “Plus, we might seize your vehicle. Try telling that to Mommy and Daddy.” CP