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Counterfeiting Crackdown

This $100 bill was previously a $5 bill, as evidenced by its security thread glowing blue under a UV light. A real $100 bill’s

This $100 bill was previously a $5 bill, as evidenced by its security thread glowing blue under a UV light. A real $100 bill's thread glows light red or pink. Photo: Tanner Latham. We've all experienced it. A cashier holds our cash up to the light or marks it with a pen to test its authenticity. Counterfeiting is a big problem. In the last year, almost a million counterfeit dollars have been confiscated in the Charlotte region. Local police, businesses, and the Secret Service are all fighting it on a daily basis. The assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 changed the duties for the Secret Service. It wasn't until his death that the agency was assigned to protect the president and the other leaders. That's how we think of it today, right? But the Secret Service was actually founded shortly after the Civil War to combat counterfeiting. Secret Service Agent Glen Kessler explains the tells in counterfeit bills. Photo: Tanner Latham Agent Glen Kessler is one of 30 in the Charlotte office, and he's points out the tells in a fake $100 bill. "At first glance, it appears to have the security features that a normal bill would," he says. So, for example, you have the watermark of the portrait of a president on the right hand side." He's talking about a smaller inset portrait over in the right hand corner that you can only see when you hold it up to the light. "But if you look closely, what you'll actually see is that while this is Benjamin Franklin, this is Abraham Lincoln," says Hessler. What we're looking at is Franklin's portrait in the middle, and Lincoln's over on the right. That's wrong. So, what the counterfeiter did in this case was to bleach out or "wash" a real $5 bill and reprint it with markings that look like a $100 bill. The Prevalence of Counterfeiting In the last year, the Secret Service has collected $70 million in fake money nationwide. $1.3 million of that came from North Carolina. And more than 2/3rds of that came from the state's western region, which includes Charlotte. That region also includes the town of Hickory where there's been a recent rash of counterfeiting. Since November, 45 fake bills have been confiscated from businesses there. Sergeant Brett Porter of the Hickory Police says that in most cases, the person who tries to spend the fake bill usually sticks around when the police are called. Most likely, they are innocent and confused. "On the flip side, we have people who, as soon as they're told it is counterfeit, they try to grab the money back and run out the door and jump into a car and back up so they can't get their license plates," he says. "So it's the full spectrum." Esther Kim manages Plaza Sundries and uses a counterfeit detector pen when she suspects a fake bill. Photo: Tanner Latham Detector Pen vs. the UV Light Back in Charlotte, Esther Kim manages a convenience store at the bus station uptown. She says she comes across fake bills at least twice a week. "Sometimes, the money, we can feel itthe fake. 'This is fake.' They say, 'Oh, I didn't know that,'" she says. Kim uses a counterfeit detector pen. You've seen cashiers mark up money with these. The ink is an iodine solution that reacts to different papers in different ways. Real U.S. currency is made with fiber-based paper, and so the pen detects that. But if a bill is made from wood-based paper, the kind often used when people counterfeit with a home printer, then the pen shows a different color, and the cashier knows it's fake. But agent Hessler says that it doesn't take much for counterfeiters to get around the paper "pen test." If a bill's been washed, like that $100 bill that was really a $5 bill, the pen can't tell, because the paper's the same. And that's where a much better anti-counterfeiting tool comes into play: Ultraviolet light. The Fraud Fighter, found at every register in IKEA, uses a UV light to detect polyester security threads in legal currency. Photo: Tanner Latham On a weekday at IKEA on North Tryon, people push flatbed carts and manhandle those giant yellow plastic bags as they hit the checkout lines. They might not notice at first glance, but each of the 26 registers has an extra piece of gear sitting on top of it. A hollow black box called a Fraud Fighter that shines an ultraviolet light. These boxes run about $98 bucks a pop. Just slip some money beneath the UV light-a 20 dollar bill, for example... "And then that green strip right there shows where the 20 should be," says Ingrid Vicencio, the front line manager, as she confirms that the bill's real. Here's how it works. All legal currency, except for 1 dollar bills, has clear polyester security threads embedded in it. And those threads have colors that correspond to the denomination. So, $20 bills have green threads. $50 bills have yellow. And $100 bills have pink. Now, one interesting side note to the country's war on counterfeiting extends beyond the American border. Agent Kessler says illegal Israeli operations are actually well known for their high quality bills. And Columbian printing operations are often connected to drug lords. "We go out into these jungles," he says. "We try to seize these printing presses. And oftentimes, they are associated directly with cocaine processing areas also." But he says the overwhelming majority of the fake bills circulating in the U.S. right now are still coming from small time operations using ink jet and laser printers, as well as color copiers. Top- Israeli; it has a blue tint to the 100 in the lower right hand corner, when it should be a color-shifting green to black ink; 2- Columbian; 3- Ink jet bill printed on a bleached $5 bill; 4-Ink jet $10 printed on regular stock paper; 5-Ink jet $20 printed on regular stock paper. Photo:Tanner Latham