SAVANNAH - A few years ago, a 21-year-old man was working at a computer retail store in Augusta. During a break, he used a floor-model computer, scanner and color ink-jet printer to make counterfeit money.
After work, he stopped at a convenience store and tried to pass his new currency. Instead of getting change, he got 12 months in jail.
According to the Savannah office of the Secret Service, incidents of counterfeit bills, especially $50 ones, being passed in the area are up.
Because of the advent of new technology and affordable home computers, color printers and scanners, it's quick and easy to make fake money, said Tom Jeter, the senior resident agent in charge of the Savannah office.
His office takes in double what it used to each month - between $6,000 and $15,000 - with most of the fake currency made on computers.
"People have this stuff at home," Agent Jeter said. "Kids are doing it. There is no profile. It's a crime of opportunity."
In some circles, counterfeit currency is sold similarly to drugs, bundled in brown paper wrapping as cocaine might be. It's sold in bulk, going for anywhere from 10 cents on the dollar for the stuff made on computers, to 25 cents on the dollar for the professional-quality fake money made on off-set printers.
"You'll see some normally honest people, and the greed feeds on them," Agent Jeter said.
If a person is caught making money on a computer, the computer will be seized by the federal government, Agent Jeter said. If a person passes counterfeit money through his vehicle, the vehicle can be seized.
The Savannah office of the Secret Service prosecutes about 50 cases each year. Two-thirds of its cases go through federal court; the rest are tried in state court.
A person can be charged under federal or state law if caught passing a counterfeit bill. Sometimes an innocent person gets passed a counterfeit bill inadvertently when receiving change.
In that case - called a floater - the person caught with the bill most likely will not be federally prosecuted, Agent Jeter said. One element of the law is the intent to defraud. However, he added, the person's name will be flagged, and if it happens again, prosecutors might not be so trusting.
"You should be able to tell by feel and appearance, that's not real money," Agent Jeter said. "The security features are there, but if you don't use them, they're no good."
How to spot a fake
There are many differences between real and fake money, ranging from the quality of the paper to the quality of the printing. One quick and easy way to check is to look at the bill itself.
The ink on counterfeit currency runs when it gets wet or damp, discoloring the paper, and often giving it a yellow tint.
On any redesigned bill larger than $5, there is color-shifting ink. The green number on the bill in the lower right corner on the front appears black when viewed at an angle.
There is a water mark on each redesigned bill from $5 on up, located in the blank space to the right of the portrait. It is visible from both sides when held up to a light.
A security thread is embedded in each redesigned bill, which glows a different color for each bill when held under an ultraviolet light. The thread is located in different positions on each bill.