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Funny money: counterfeit money seams persist.

This past July, an innocent brush with a counterfeit $20 bill at a Chick-fil-A restaurant almost cost Larry Ulmer his job, got him jail time, and caused him to fail a background cheek for a new position when he was just days away from signing an acceptance letter.

"When the cashier took the $20 bill that I gave her, she looked at it. After she got a manager, they said that it was counterfeit money. I couldn't believe it," says Ulmer, a computer programmer in Atlanta. "It blew me away."

Fortunately, the detective that investigated the incident determined that Ulmer had inadvertently acquired the fake bill, and no criminal charges were pressed. The incident left him with a bruised ego and $20 short.

Bogus money, fake cash, sourdough--call it what you will. People have exchanged counterfeit money since paper currency's debut in the United States more than 140 years ago, and the challenge of scaling back counterfeit money scams remains, according to Brian Marr, a special agent with the United States Secret Service in Washington, D.C. "There's no way to make currency counterfeit-proof," Marr says. "Right now, there's approximately $70 million in counterfeit currency in circulation worldwide out of approximately $620 billion in genuine currency. That's less than .02% of the total currency in circulation." (See the above chart for tips from Marr on how to detect counterfeit bills.)

Yet, there are ways to handle a situation if you are passed a counterfeit note. According to William Byrd, a detective with the Atlanta Police Department's Fraud Unit, it is best for innocent individuals to remain calm should they find themselves investigated for counterfeit money fraud.

"If a consumer somehow ends up passing a counterfeit bill, unknowingly, the person [should] give the store his or her I.D. and assure them that they didn't know it was counterfeit," says Byrd. "Be cooperative. If you have other bills with you, look over those with the store manager to show that they are not counterfeit."

Should you acquire fake money from somewhere other than a store or bank, Marr urges consumers to refrain from stopping the perpetrator; not to handle the money excessively; and, if possible, get a description of the counterfeiter and his or her vehicle. Then contact local law enforcement or the Secret Service.

Although businesses and hanks are not obligated to compensate customers for receiving a counterfeit note, a part of the United States Code Title 18, Section 471, gives merchants, banks, and businesses the authority to retain these notes.

Anyone can unknowingly receive a counterfeit note. "I would suggest to anyone in a situation like this to remain calm and cooperative," says Ulmer. "Had I ranted and raved, that would have [made] me look guilty, and I would certainly be in jail."

* BORDER. The fine lines around the border of genuine currency are not broken and are clear. With counterfeit currency, the scrollwork is going to be blurred and indistinct.

* FEDERAL RESERVE AND TREASURY SEALS. The seals appear distinct and sharp. The counterfeit seal is going to look blunt and broken-it may even be missing some detail.

* PAPER. Genuine currency paper has tiny red and blue fibers imbedded throughout. Counterfeiters are going to try to simulate these fibers on the paper, but the counterfeit lines are printed on the surface and not imbedded into the bill itself.

* SERIAL NUMBERS. Genuine serial numbers are distinctive. They are printed in the same ink color as the Treasury Seal. With counterfeit money, the serial number is a different color from the Treasury Seal and the numbers may not be uniformly spaced.

* PORTRAIT. The portrait in the middle of a genuine note is going to appear lifelike. A counterfeit portrait is usually limp, lifeless, and flat, and its details merge into the background.

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Title Annotation:Buyer Beware
Author:Hamilton-Wright, Kimberly J.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:633
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