Fight counterfeiters: Learn to spot fake money

There hasn't been a rise in counterfeit currency in America during the last decade, but there has been a change - it's gotten simpler.

What used to take an artisan, image plates and a printing press now can be done by anyone with a computer and a scanner, said Phoenix-based U.S. Secret Service Special Agent in Charge Kevin Rice.

In many instances, the individual counterfeiter printing fake bills from his computer has replaced the large criminal organizations creating $10 million worth of $20 bills, Rice said.

Counterfeiters are spending their fake loot to purchase items through Craigslist, at garage sales, at busy stores and even at fast food joints as they pass through the drive-thru. These criminals are looking for the easiest way to pass their fake money without alerting others, Rice said.

"They found a technological way to pick your pocket," he said.

The ease with which counterfeiters can print fake money is the bad news, he said. The good news is that of all the U.S. currency in circulation, 0.03 percent is counterfeit, he said. Also, within five to 10 minutes, people can learn how to spot a large majority of counterfeit bills.

On Thursday, Rice plans to teach anyone who cares to learn how to spot fake money at an event hosted by the Kingman Police Department, the Mohave County Sheriff's Office and the Kingman Area Chamber of Commerce.

He is slated to give two-hour presentations at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Sheriff's Office, 600 W. Beale St.

One thing the Secret Service is seeing is an increase of people leeching the ink off a $5 bill and then printing the image of a $50 bill onto the genuine paper. This money may pass the "feel" test, but it doesn't pass the "eye" test if people know what to look for, Rice said.

Most bills contain watermarks, which are identical to the portraits on the currency. For example, a $5 bill has a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a watermark that matches. Someone checking the authenticity of a bill can hold it up to the light to see if the portrait and watermark match. If they don't, it's a counterfeit bill, Rice said.

Also, newer bills are made with ink that changes color at different angles, Rice said. Counterfeiters have a hard time reproducing this effect, so people can rather easily tell if a bill is real or fake by simply shifting the bill between 90- and 45-degree angles, he said.

The newer big head bills have eight built in security features that Rice plans to go through during Thursday's presentations.

Banks are required to report counterfeit money they receive to the Secret Service. Once a bank gets a counterfeit bill, it means that bill was used in some sort of transaction. Rice said he saw multiple passes in the last several weeks of counterfeit bills in Kingman and decided he needed to nip the situation in the bud. He called KPD Chief Robert Devries, and together they set up the event.

"One goal of the Secret Service is to educate the public," Rice said.

Though it's rare, the ramifications of counterfeiting hit people where it hurts most - their wallets.

Capturing counterfeiters is "harder now than it used to be," Rice said. In the past, the Secret Service could track counterfeit currency through the ranks and up to the kingpin, he said. It's harder now to pinpoint these guys, Rice said, because in many instances they'll produce a few fake bills, spend them and never use them again.