Police are advising area business owners and managers to tell their staffs to take a harder look when a customer offers a large bill in payment – especially when it's a $100 bill for a purchase of just a few dollars.
Counterfeiters are using a method that breaks through the first two lines of defense: the feel of the paper, and a sensing pen used by many businesses that detects a marker in real scrip paper and tells you it is a genuine piece of currency.
The trouble lately, said Lt. Dennis Davidson of the Wauwatosa Police Detective Bureau, is that it is real money, but it isn't a real 100.
"It's all about the Benjamins," Davidson said. "There are other methods being used, too, but the main problem is the bleached $5 bills altered to look like $100s.
"It is rampant, not just here but throughout the metro area – really, throughout southeast Wisconsin and elsewhere."
The U.S. Treasury has gone to great lengths to defeat counterfeiters in the age of high-resolution scanners and digital laser printers. Layers of micro-security measures are embedded in the specialized paper of our currency, including watermarks, security strips and color-changing ink.
But the bleach-and-reprint method offers busy cashiers a hard lesson in taking it too easy. In a slew of reports in the past couple of weeks, clerks have reported that they used detecting pens provided by their employers and were fooled anyway by altered $5s.
"The best thing to know, for the retailers, is that even if they use the marker pens, it's not going to detect this fraud," Davidson said. "But there are a couple of pretty easy things to see. The watermark would be a picture of Lincoln when it should be Franklin, and the security strip will say 'five' when it should read '100.'"
Another obvious sign of a forged $100 bill is that the 100 figure in the lower right corner of the face of the bill should shift color from green to black with the angle of light striking it. The bleached bills can be reprinted accurately, but not with color-changing ink.
According to a Wauwatosa bank manager who did not want to be named, the best method is simply training all employees to confidently recognize a real bill – all counterfeits made by any method then stand out, she said.
If that seems impractical, she said, the purchase of a cheap countertop light reader can save possible $100 losses with a glance. Her bank has automated money-counters that catch and spit out the few counterfeits that a bank receives, but she keeps the light readers around just for training purposes.
Police Sgt. Paul Leist said that stores like a Walgreen's are often targeted because they meet several criteria the crooks are looking for.
"They're going to pick a place that's busy, where people often make very small purchases, and they're going to look for the youngest cashier," Leist said. "They want it to be quick, and if there's a line, clerks might not want to take the time.
"So, you should be on the lookout for anybody making a small purchase with a large bill, for starters. Who buys a pack of gum with a $100?"
[Editor's note: Enlarge the photos to see security features on real bills revealed on an inexpensive light table and the U.S. Secret Service's "Know Your Money" poster (be sure to click "Fullscreen"). Download your own poster and learn more on the Secret Service "Know Your Money" web page.]
Most recent incidents
At 6:35 p.m. Sunday, police were called to Walgreen’s, 2656 Wauwatosa Ave., on a report that a customer had passed a counterfeit $100 bill. The bill proved to be a genuine $5 bill that had been bleached and altered.
The clerk who made the sale described the suspect as African-American with a medium complexion, 20 to 30 years old, 6-feet, 3-inches tall, weight 180 to 200 pounds, with his hair in dreadlocks tied in a ponytail. The description matched that of a suspect in a recent and similar incident in Menomonee Falls.
At 3:34 p.m. Saturday, a suspect of similar description passed a counterfeit $100 bill at the Walgreen’s at 2275 N. Mayfair Rd. The man bought first-aid tape priced at $4.74 and was given $95.26 in change.
Again, the bill was a genuine $5 bill altered to look like a $100. The description of the suspect provided by the clerk was substantially similar to that in Sunday’s incident.
The clerk said that when he held the bill up to the light, the customer said, “C’mon man, my grandma wouldn’t do that to me,” and “It’s a good bill.” The clerk said he felt pressured and felt he should just accept the money. The serial number was the same as on a bill passed in another incident.
At 10:36 a.m. Saturday, police were called to pick up a counterfeit $20 bill that was passed the night before at Outpost Natural Foods, 7000 W. State St. This bill was complete forgery with defective holgrams and no security strip, as opposed to an altered bill.