Originally created 02/06/01

Funny money makes reappearance

After a long, welcome lull, counterfeit cash is steadily slipping into Augusta's circulation again, and not even government offices are safe.

Last week, the city of North Augusta's Finance Department was informed by Wachovia Bank that a $20 bill it deposited was counterfeit, according to a police report.

A clerk said it could have come from a customer paying a water bill or taxes. It hasn't happened since, but workers are being cautious.

"(We're) just keeping our eyes open," Ann Forseth said.

Across the state line, Richmond County sheriff's deputies were called to DMS Probation on Jan. 22 when a man tried to pay a fine using two fake $5 bills. The man said in an incident report he might have picked up the bills in a transaction at a nearby Burger King or Subway restaurant.

While the deputy was at the office, another man tried to pay a fine with a counterfeit $10 bill, the report said. Neither of the men were arrested, because they apparently thought the money was real.

In the handful of cases Richmond County sheriff's Investigator Pat Stahler has opened in the past few weeks, the counterfeit money was usually found in bank deposits, he said.

"Why it started up again, who knows?" he said.

Secret Service Special Agent David Robey said the current trend is nowhere near the volume of last spring's post-Masters Tournament counterfeiting rash. For months, bills regularly turned up in banks, restaurants and convenience stores, sometimes at a rate of eight per day.

A few arrests were made during that time for passing the bills, but the manufacturers were never caught, said Agent Robey, who is assigned to the Augusta office.

He said he has recovered about a half-dozen phony bills in the past month from Augusta and surrounding counties. Most are poor-quality, blurred $20s, likely produced with computer printers or color copiers. There might be a single source circulating them as far as Warren County, he said.

Assistant Special Agent in Charge Pete Ostergren, of the Secret Service's Columbia office, said 85 percent of South Carolina's counterfeit bills are produced on ink-jet printers. But iodine pens, which local businesses heavily rely on to detect the phony money, are not foolproof, he said. A better way to check is to wet your finger and rub the bill.

"If it smears, you know it's an ink-jet note," the agent said.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.


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