Printed on: November 17, 2012

Following the fake money

By Ruth Brown

REXBURG -- With counterfeit $20 bills spread across his desk, Capt. Randy Lewis said the average person probably couldn't tell the difference between the fakes and the real thing.

The Rexburg Police Department is investigating 11 cases of counterfeit cash. While no charges or arrests have been made, Lewis said investigators have identified persons of interest.

Passing counterfeit money is on the rise in small cities such as Rexburg, and the Secret Service said it can be found everywhere.

"Lately it's much more common," Lewis said. "We always used to have two, three or four (counterfeit bills) a year, but in the last two weeks we've got 20-plus bills."

In September, Rexburg police launched a search for two women and a man suspected of passing counterfeit $20 bills in several stores, including Walmart, Kmart and Sally Beauty Supply.

Most of the fake cash that Rexburg officers are seeing is not made locally, Lewis said. It's high-quality, and Lewis believes a Mexican drug cartel is responsible.

"They are a big producer of these $20s, $10s and $5s," Lewis said. "The 20-dollar bills are most common because they draw less attention (than $50s and $100s)."

While the latest fake bills turning up here apparently weren't produced locally, other counterfeiters are home-grown.

On June 22, Kregg Passey, 28, was arraigned after he made and passed $750 worth of $50 bills in St. Anthony. Passey's $50 bills were made on a laptop and computer scanner, Fremont County Prosecutor Joette Lookabaugh said.

Lookabaugh said it was "shocking" to see how easily he made them, even if they weren't high-quality.

Passey, of St. Anthony, was sentenced Oct. 23 after he pleaded guilty to one count of uttering false bills, Lookabaugh said. In exchange for his plea, prosecutors dismissed his two additional charges.

District Judge Gregory Moeller retained jurisdiction and ordered Passey to serve a traditional 90-day Correctional Alternative Placement Program rider, Lookabaugh said. If he successfully completes his rider program, he could serve the rest of his eight-year prison sentence on probation.

Pocatello assistant U.S. attorney Jack Haycock said he's prosecuted about a dozen counterfeit cases, most involving small amounts of locally produced phony money.

"Some people just make it on a computer with a color scanner," Haycock said.

Uttering counterfeit obligations or securities is a federal crime, Haycock said, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Some of the smaller counterfeiters will be prosecuted at the state level -- on fraud charges -- if the suspect cooperates in helping find someone "higher on the food chain," Haycock said.

Often, it's simply a case of one person passing a few bills, he said.

One of the challenges prosecutors face is proving that the person caught with the bogus bills knew the money was counterfeit.

"A pocket full of bills with the same serial number is a clear sign they knew," Haycock said.

Other tools, such as in-store video surveillance cameras that record an individual passing fake money, are useful in leading to the arrest and conviction of counterfeiters, he said.

Many times, however, the fake money isn't detected until it has been deposited with a bank. That makes it difficult to track the source of the cash.

Resident agent Robert Harrell of the Boise Secret Service office said counterfeit money is found everywhere in the U.S.

"With the holiday season, it will spike because people are desperate," Harrell said. "I haven't noticed any significant change recently, though."

Cashiers at fast-food restaurants often are targeted by counterfeiters, Harrell said, because they often are young and sometimes inattentive when taking in money.

Larger crowds of shoppers during the holiday season mean cashiers are rushed.

The first line of defense for business is making sure cashiers are educated about counterfeit cash, Lewis said. Real cash contains several distinguishing marks.

The Secret Service website offers several tips to look for, and Lewis had suggestions as well.

The ink on real money is raised and bumps can be felt by its handler, Lewis said.

Counterfeit money is usually smooth.

Real bills of all denominations carry a vertical security strip. The strip can be seen when the cash is held to the light. When a black light is held over the security strip, it glows a fluorescent color, Lewis said.

False security strips will not appear in color.

Business owners can and should train cashiers to look for all those characteristics, Lewis said.

While many cashiers use a detection pen to test cash, Lewis said the pens often give false positives.

He said that while his department has not made any arrests in the counterfeit cases, they believe they know where the cash is coming from.

"Hopefully we can resolve some of these soon," Lewis said.

Ruth Brown can be reached at 542-6750. Comment on this story on Post Talk at talk/.Know the difference

On a real bill, the presidential portrait should appear lifelike and stand out from the background.

On a real bill, the sawtooth points of the Federal Reserve and Treasury seals are clear, distinct and sharp. On a fake bill, the seals may have uneven, blunt or broken sawtooth points.

On a real bill, the fine lines in the border are clear and unbroken.

On a real bill, serial numbers have a distinctive style and are evenly spaced. Serial numbers are printed in the same ink color as the Treasury seal.

Real money is made of a cloth with red and blue fibers weaved into it.

For information, visit the Secret Service website at money_detect.shtml.

Recent counterfeit case

On June 6, 2011, a St. Louis man was sentenced to prison for his role in passing counterfeit $100 bills at stores in Idaho Falls, Ammon, Rexburg and Pocatello, as well as Nephi, Utah.

Anthony Lamar Thomas and co-defendant Arlene Rivera both were charged.

Thomas was ordered to serve a 21-month prison sentence for passing forged obligations and securities of the United States, according to court documents.

His sentence runs concurrently with a sentence imposed in Utah on Dec. 2, 2010, on two counts of forgery and one count of false personal information.

Rivera was sentenced April 12, 2010, to three years of supervised release and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $2,348.71