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Fake money is so common all should beware
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Technology has made it easier for criminals to produce counterfeit U.S. currency, and local merchants are saying that they see plenty of fake bills these days. It is not an epidemic, but there are so many instances of people trying to pass off counterfeit bills that many businesses are starting to scrutinize even the lower denominations, like $5 bills, before accepting them from customers.

My research shows that of all U.S. currency in circulation, about one to two percent of it is counterfeit, which accounts for an estimated $261 million in counterfeit money. I have my doubts (the numbers are likely to be much higher), but it may be that areas like ours experience a higher concentration of phony money. In any event, even if the numbers seem to suggest that the problem is not a big one, a bit of caution is certainly in order. One merchant in Modesto told me that she encounters phony bills almost every day, so it seems that being careful is the prudent thing to do. I recently sold a small boat and was paid in $20 bills. Needless to say, all of them were legitimate, but it was worth the extra few minutes to examine each bill before accepting it.

Interestingly, the mass producers of counterfeit money do not use it for their own purchasing purposes. Instead, they sell the currency for approximately 20-30 cents on the dollar. The very-high-quality fakes go for as high a 50 percent of the face value of each bill. In addition, while there are plenty of people using home computers and printers to produce phony money, their impact on the economy and individual victims appears to be less than that of the bigger operators.

The U.S. government has a high stake in protecting the integrity of its currency and to maintain public confidence in its legal tender; therefore, it takes painstaking measures to make it difficult to produce counterfeit bills. Some of these measures include using color-shifting ink, red and blue threads embedded in the paper and watermark images that can be seen with enhanced lighting. Still, technology allows counterfeiters to produce near-perfect counterfeits. It seems like the most skilled counterfeiters are always able to stay just a step or two ahead the government's efforts to foil their efforts.

Many businesses still only pay attention to denominations of 20s, 50s and 100s, yet I see criminals taking advantage of this practice and using fake 5s and 10s to commit their crimes. People and merchants would do well to check $5 bills and larger to help stop this trend. Keep in mind that when you accept a counterfeit bill, even unknowingly, you are stuck with it. It is illegal to pass that bill on, and if you do, at minimum you may end up being named in a criminal investigation. If the government can prove that you knew it was counterfeit, criminal charges will be likely.

The rule for protecting yourself is to check currency (especially $20 or larger bills) before accepting them during purchasing transactions. The quickest ways include checking for the normally distinctive feel of the paper. If it feels smooth, it is probably fake. The newer bills contain a security thread that is embedded in the paper and runs vertically on one side of the note. This thread contains tiny letters spelling out the value of the note. So, for a twenty dollar bill, you will see the words, in barely 1/10 of an inch in size, "USA Twenty." In addition, the $20 note will contain a watermark image, depicting former president Andrew Jackson on the lower right hand side. It can be seen when holding the note up to a light. The ink on U.S. currency does not run when exposed to water and the color of the "20" on the lower right corner of the note will shift from copper to green, depending on the angle viewed.

When getting cash from the bank or ATM do not assume that all of the bills have been screened - there may well be counterfeit bills, so take time to examine them. Do not delay in reporting any counterfeit bill finds immediately to the bank or other entity that transferred it to you. And be particularly careful when receiving a large amount of cash for such things as appliances, boats, cars, etc., as it is a matter of odds when it comes to the risk as a particular transaction involves higher numbers of bills.

If you wish more information on this subject, there are many resources on the web to help you get all the facts and protect yourself. Taking a few seconds to check the currency during purchasing or selling transactions may well save you a lot of hard-earned money.