Counterfeit bills on the rise in some regional cities

Local

Depending on where you are in the region, there might be a chance you’re seeing more counterfeit bills.

According to numbers from eight regional law enforcement agencies, some cities in the region have reported more than 100 instances of counterfeit bills in the past year. Officials agree that the prevalence of counterfeit bills ebbs and flows, typically spiking around the holidays with rises and falls throughout the rest of the year.

AgencyNumber of counterfeit bill reports
Greeneville73 reports since Jan. 2018
Johnson City110 reports since Jan. 2018
Washington County, Tenn.6 reports since Jan. 2018
Kingsport120 reports since Jan. 2018
Sullivan County24 reports since Jan. 2018
Bristol, Tenn.42 reports since Jan. 2018
Bristol, Va.46 reports since Oct. 2017
Washington County, Va.19 reports since Jan. 2018

Sgt. Kevin Peters with the Johnson City Police Department said there has been an uptick in recent months in the city, and that he suspects the bills are coming from multiple sources. 

What makes the perpetrators hard to catch, Peters said, is store owners often don’t notice the fake bills until long after the culprit has left the establishment. 

Greeneville Police Department Capt. Tim Davis said part of the problem is cashiers don’t have a lot of time to properly examine bills to make sure they are legitimate. While counterfeit bill detector pens can help, Lt. Mike Ottinger said he’s seen the pens mark legitimate bills. 

While some fake bills can be very convincing to the untrained eye, Ottinger and Davis said the first step is to read the printed words on the bill – some will say “motion picture money” and others will have Chinese characters printed on the back. 

“If you flip it over on the back and it’s got these red Chinese characters, or someone has taken and put a big black blotch on the back of it to cover it up, that’s a clue, don’t accept that money,” Davis said.

The next step is to hold the bill up to the light, Ottinger said, and look for a holograph of the face on the bill to the right, and a strip to the left denoting the value of the bill to the left. 

Fake bills are legal and easy to buy online, Ottinger said. Buying and possessing the bills isn’t illegal, even printing fake money isn’t illegal. What it boils down to, Davis said, is the intent behind the bills.

“If you print money up with the intent to defraud the government, if you get a computer to print money to buy a car with, your intent all across the board is criminal action,” he said. “If you print it because you play Monopoly every Friday night . . . your intent is not to defraud anybody, there’s no criminal intent, there’s no crime.” 

Another trick counterfeiters sometimes use, Davis said, is they will acid wash legitimate $1 or $5 bills, and reprint a larger value on top of them. That way, the fake bills still pass the pen test, but technology at banks are able to reveal that the bill is counterfeit. 

“It’ll pass the pen test, it’ll pass the ultra-violet light test, but when it goes to the bank, the counters at the bank read those strips and count them as whatever it came from the press as,” Davis explained. “So if you used it as $100, and you run it through the bank, the bank’s going to catch it as a $1 (bill) or a $5 (bill).” 

What to look for in official U.S. currency: 

  • A strip to the left of the portrait on the bill denoting the amount of money on the bill when held up to the light.
  • A “ghost” of the portrait on the right side of the bill when held up to the light. 
  • Even margins around the edges of the bill. 
  • On $100 bills, a holographic strip embedded into the bill. 
  • A different serial number on each bill. 

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