- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

Beware: Counterfeiting is rampant in the greater Washington area, where Secret Service agents have shut down a dozen local counterfeiters in the past 12 months.

"We pretty much lead the nation [in counterfeiting]," said Peter Dowling, special agent in charge of operations at the Secret Service's Washington field office.

"We typically recover between $6,000 and $8,000 in counterfeit currency each week," said David O'Connor, assistant special agent in charge of the Washington field office.

On March 7, a 24-year-old Hyattsville, Md., man pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., to possession of $19,800 in counterfeit $100 bills.

Lonnell Arrington was arrested Jan. 24 by Takoma Park police after the car he was riding in was stopped for speeding and running a stop sign on Poplar Avenue near New Hampshire Avenue. Under the seat were sheets of $100 counterfeit bills wrapped in plastic, which authorities determined belonged to him.

"This represents one of the single-largest counterfeit seizures in the Washington area in recent years," Mr. O'Connor said. "The Takoma Park police did a good job."

It was the largest seizure in Takoma Park history, said police spokeswoman Carol Bannerman.

In 1999, the Secret Service confiscated $180 million in counterfeit bills in the United States and around the world. About $480 billion of genuine U.S. currency is in circulation worldwide.

The Secret Service is the protective and investigative branch of the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees the production and distribution of currency, among other duties.

If you're unlucky enough to get stuck with a phony bill, the Secret Service Web site advises contacting the local police department or the Secret Service field office, and surrendering it only to properly identified officers or agents. As for reimbursement, the best you can hope for is a write-off on your tax return, the agency said.

The Bureau of Printing and Engraving began redesigning currency in 1996 to make counterfeiting more difficult. Modern technology like computer scanners, color copiers, ink-jet printers and publishing-grade software was enabling amateurs, including youths on home computers, to copy and print counterfeits from the old, legal bills.

"I think the new designs are effective," said Secret Service spokesman Brian Deck, adding that ordinary citizens can now look at cash they are receiving and determine if it is authentic.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, counterfeiters had to be experienced printers with offset presses to produce bills that had the same color and texture of legal tender, Mr. Deck said.

But the newly designed bills have built-in marks that computers cannot copy, although counterfeiters are still trying to make a go of it.

"They are virtually impossible for a counterfeiter to replicate," said Mr. Dowling. "A person can look at a note and determine pretty quickly if it is authentic."

Now, cashiers can hold bills up to the light to see the watermarks, or tilt bills from side to side so colors change or rub special pencils across the bill to determine authenticity.

The most commonly counterfeited bill is the $20. Andrew Jackson's portrait can be seen in watermark on one edge and the numeral 20 changes from green to black. The numeral color change also works on the $100, $50 and $10 bills, which bear the portraits of Benjamin Franklin, President Ulysses S. Grant, and first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, respectively.

The redesigned $5 and $10 bills went into circulation last summer. Typically, the $5 and $10 bills wear out in two years and are withdrawn from circulation.

A few weeks after the new $5 and $10 bills went into circulation, six Marysville, Tenn., youths were charged with felony counterfeiting. Included was the high school quarterback. Two brothers, ages 14 and 17, were accused of making $400 worth of $5, $10 and $20 bills on a home computer and scanner and giving the fakes to other students.

A bank clerk found a counterfeit from the school cafeteria. Cafeteria cashiers then were given felt-tip pens that leave brown or gold marks on legal tender, but black marks on counterfeits.

New bills are printed on special 100 percent rag bond paper, which even feels different from counterfeit bills, Mr. Deck said. The Secret Service occasionally checks production of private manufacturers to determine whether their paper is similar and who is buying it, Mr. Dowling said.

Another built-in safeguard against $5 bill counterfeiters is a polymer thread to the left of President Abraham Lincoln's portrait that glows blue when exposed to ultraviolet light. On the new $10 bill, a thread to the right of Hamilton's portrait glows white under ultraviolet light.

Preparation and printing of new currency is coordinated with private businesses to make certain the new bills will be accepted by vending machines.

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