Counterfeit cash hits Ames in the wallet

Tyrus Pavicich

Thieves throughout Ames are pilfering local businesses in an unexpected way– by trading their ill-gotten gains for green paper at the register.

This paper is not to be confused for money, though; movie props and professional-grade fakes are becoming increasingly common throughout the city, meaning that innocent citizens may unknowingly be carrying a federal crime in their wallet.

“In the past, when we saw counterfeits, they were usually large denomination bills– hundreds, maybe fifties,” said Ames Police Cmdr. Geoff Huff. “There’s sort of a profit margin for this whole thing.”

Thanks to constantly improving technology, however, it’s becoming more and more possible to make a profit counterfeiting smaller bills. Although they’re less profitable to produce, small-denomination counterfeits are much more likely to slip by an unwary cashier.

“There’s so much scrutiny on fifties and hundreds,” said Huff. “If you’re in line at a Kum & Go and you throw out a five, probably not the same level of scrutiny.”

Elliot Krueger, general store manager at Jeff’s Pizza on Lincoln Way, echoed Huff’s sentiment and explained that cashiers can also easily miss counterfeit bills when they’re trying to keep up with an influx of customers.

“We’re pretty loose about checking that stuff. Obviously, a large bill like a $100 bill, we’ll mark it to make sure, for the most part,” said Krueger. “We keep a linen pen by the register to test them.”

Linen pens are used to test the validity of bills at many cash-accepting storefronts, but Huff says that an over-reliance on them is unwise. The ink only verifies that what they’re writing on contains linen, which means that counterfeits printed over real money or on paper blends similar to the one used by the U.S. Treasury will test positive.

Huff suggests making use of the multitude of security features present in federal currency, including watermarks and a security thread that glows under ultraviolet light.

“The easiest one is in the bottom, right-hand corner of 100s, 50s, 20s and i think 10s, they print the denomination in color shifting ink, so if you tilt it it changes from green to gold,” said Huff. “We haven’t found anybody that could fake that yet.”

No matter how many advanced security features the Treasury includes in federal currency, though, busy cashiers can still make mistakes. The occasional typo, incorrect president or missing security feature could be overlooked by anyone who deals with cash enough to develop muscle memory for opening the register tray, meaning that most businesses have likely put counterfeit cash into their register at some point.

Even clearly labeled prop money can slip by those not expecting it. Huff pointed to a recent incident in which a man gave the stranger behind him in line at a gas station change for his $50 bill, only to realize later in the day that it was clearly labeled as a replica. Krueger said that they’d had a similar experience at Jeff’s, when a customer paid for their food without a single real dollar.

“Somebody payed for a big carry-out order– like, close to a hundred dollars worth– in just movie cash,” said Krueger. “It was definitely an error on our part. Yeah, it looks like money, but it also has a big stamp on it, you know, ‘This bill is intended for movie purposes only.”

By the time employees realized that they’d been scammed, it was too late to do anything– the scammer got a free meal, and Jeff’s was left with a worthless piece of paper.

“You’re kind of S.O.L. when that happens, too, because the bank could care less,” said Krueger. “It’s not their fault that you took the money, so they basically just say, ‘You’re out 20 bucks, sorry buddy.’”

The ubiquity of movie money is at least in part due to its availability– it’s carried by major digital retailers, and thousands of fake dollars can be bought for just a few real ones. According to Huff, they look and feel good enough that, if someone isn’t paying close attention, it could easily pass for the real thing.

If you’re on the receiving end of fake currency, Cmdr. Huff explains that it’s important to contact the police instead of just writing it off as a loss. Because of the level of difficulty associated with printing counterfeits, he says, many printers will use the same serial number for an entire run of fake bills. Police can match these identical banknotes to trace the use of counterfeit money in an attempt to determine the location of their source.

Although the source of prop money isn’t traced in the same way due to the fact that it’s legal to produce, Huff says that it’s worth reporting it to the police instead of just throwing it out.

“You should still let us know,” said Huff. “We want to know how much of it is out there to make sure we’re warning the public and businesses about it.”

Due to the recent uptick in counterfeit currency across Ames, officials urge businesses and consumers alike to remain vigilant when conducting business with paper money. Huff suggests browsing the U.S. Currency Education Program’s website to learn about the security features included in all denominations of American money. He also advises that consumers worried about the possibility of receiving counterfeit bills as change should use electronic payments over physical cash wherever possible.

Anyone who finds themselves in possession of counterfeit money or has information about its production and use can contact Ames Police dispatch at 515-239-5533 in order to leave a tip or report a crime.