- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It looked like the “deal of the century,” police said: a couple of guys down on their luck on Skid Row, selling valuable old silver coins for $20 apiece.

It was a pretty good deal, too — but only for the sellers. The coins they were peddling turned out to be as worthless as $3 bills.

“They’re such blatant counterfeits that all you have to do is give them a once-over with your eyeballs to know they’re fakes,” said Ron Guth, president of Professional Coin Grading Service in Irvine.

In the case of the rare 1796 silver dollar — worth perhaps $3.5 million if it were real — there were 13 stars around Lady Liberty’s head. The only problem is the real coin contains 15 stars.

Then there was the 1832 George Washington quarter, a rare find indeed, given that Washington didn’t start appearing on the quarter until 1932.

“I keep getting calls from experts saying things like, ‘The Indian head was only on the penny from this year to this year.’ All kinds of technical stuff that a person in the know would recognize as a fake,” Detective Michael Montoya said.

Investigators are still trying to find the source of the coins, which were confiscated from two street peddlers this week. Detective Montoya said he has heard they are sold in novelty shops, where they are packaged in the same kind of protective wrapping that coin collectors use but marked as “replicas.”

“Somebody sees them and thinks, ‘Wow, this guy’s got a coin worth thousands of dollars and he’s down on his luck, so I’m going to get it for 20 bucks and sell it,’” Detective Montoya said. “They think they’re getting the deal of the century, and then they get it appraised and it’s worth like a dollar.”

And that’s only if it contains any real silver, said Mr. Guth, adding that he is seeing more and more fake coins turn up.

Officers were surprised when the coins turned up for sale this week in a neighborhood where shoppers’ tastes have traditionally leaned toward fake designer clothes, bootlegged DVDs and drugs.

“It’s apparently the hot-ticket item right now,” Detective Montoya said.

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