Posted 8/17/2005 9:53 PM Updated 8/17/2005 11:37 PM
By Toni Locy, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The owners of the Amen Gift Shop never planned on making a lot of money selling African artwork to help ministers in impoverished sub-Saharan villages.
Special agent Vic Erevia of the Secret Service has more than $1 million in counterfeit bills at his Washington office.
By Tim Dillon, USA TODAY
But nearly two years ago, a counterfeiter shattered their trust in the community and their confidence in running a business when he laundered $3,900 in fake money through the store's Western Union terminal. Fearful of being victimized again, the owners closed the little shop. "When you got so much air taken out of the tire, you don't roll forward — smoothly, at least," says Nwaka Chris Egbulem, a longtime Catholic missionary and leader of the Amen Foundation, a non-profit group that ran the shop.
Unfortunately, small mom-and-pop businesses such as the Amen Gift Shop are the most frequent targets of counterfeiters, says Dale Pupillo, deputy special agent in charge of the Secret Service's criminal investigative division.
Counterfeiters prey on inexperienced and busy workers, from high school students working at ice cream stores to bartenders in busy clubs, he says. (Related item: Computers help tech-savvy counterfeiters cash in)
"They take advantage (of such workers)," Pupillo says. "For small businesses, even the smaller amounts of counterfeit money make a difference."
From the nation's capital to Gaston County, N.C., to Levelland, Texas, local and federal law enforcement officials are bringing cases that illustrate how advances in digital-imaging technology have made counterfeiting easier.
Phony money became such a problem in the 19th century that the Secret Service was formed in 1865 to fight it. Counterfeiting once required large printing presses and the hand carving of intricate designs into metal plates. These days, all it takes is a home computer and an inkjet printer.
Border Clear and unbroken Often blurred and indistinct
Seals Saw-tooth points are clear and sharp Points may be uneven or blunt
Serial numbers Evenly spaced and ink is the same color as that of the Treasury seal May differ in color from each other and/or the Treasury seal; possible uneven alignment
Paper Embedded with blue and red fibers Tiny red and blue lines are printed on surface, not embedded in the paper
Portrait Lifelike with distinct lines Often flat and mottled
Source: U.S. Secret Service
With inkjet printers or tabletop color copiers, anyone can make counterfeit cash quickly in his or her home, Pupillo says.
High school students in North Carolina are making fake cash for their lunch money. Petty criminals in Lubbock, Texas, allegedly hope to exchange fake money quickly for real currency.
Nathaniel Wills, 44, of Washington ruined the Amen Gift Shop in about four hours by using it to transform counterfeit money into real cash, according to papers filed by federal prosecutors in U.S. District Court here.
On Nov. 5, 2003, Wills and two female accomplices passed $3,900 in counterfeit money via the shop's Western Union terminal, according to the papers. The affidavit says the threesome "wired" the fake cash to other stores in the city, where they picked up legitimate money.
Wills, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced in June to 18 months in prison.
"It was devastating," says Egbulem, who reimbursed Western Union out of his own pocket.
Pupillo says today's counterfeiters have the best equipment but pay little attention to detail, often producing poor-quality fake cash.
"They're not interested in color-shifting ink or watermarks or the red and blue fibers (in legitimate money)," he says, referring to concerns of counterfeiters of the past. "They just want something that looks like a $20 bill." Most of the time, that's enough to sneak the fake bills past unsuspecting clerks at small shops, convenience stores or fast-food restaurants.
Despite the changes in counterfeiting, the amount of fake cash produced, seized and passed has remained stable in recent years. Counterfeit money continues to represent a small percentage of the $700 billion in legitimate currency in circulation worldwide, the Secret Service says.
Last year, the agency estimates, domestic counterfeiters produced $53.7 million in fake cash. Of that, law enforcement officials seized about $10.3 million, which left $43.4 million in circulation.
In Gaston County, N.C., prosecutor William Stevenson says he's seen "a marked increase" in the past six years in cases such as the one against Casey Henson, 23, of Belmont, N.C., who allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill to pay for delivery of a pepperoni pizza.
On May 29, two days after he tried to dupe Pizza Hut, Henson paid a tab at a popular local bar with a counterfeit $20 bill, according to police reports.
Belmont police Officer Dawn Todd wrote in an arrest report that Henson had $252 in counterfeit cash in one side of his wallet and some real money in the other. According to the report, Henson admitted he had made the counterfeit money. Police confiscated a scanner from his home and seized more than $2,000 in fake money.
Public defender Andrea Godwin, who represents Henson, wouldn't elaborate on his case until the grand jury took action. But she says she has had several clients who were accused of making fake money on their home computers, including juveniles who made counterfeit $20 bills and tried to spend them in school lunchrooms.
Godwin says most of the defendants plead guilty to misdemeanors because of the small amounts of money involved.
Some cases carry a much greater risk. Alleged counterfeiters Tasha Garcia and Herman Brooks "could have caused an explosion" when they took off at high speed from a Levelland, Texas, gas station on June 15, according to a Secret Service affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Lubbock.
An alert convenience-store clerk realized Garcia and Brooks were trying to pass a counterfeit $50 bill to pay for gas and told them she was calling police, the affidavit says.
The court papers say the pair drove away at such a high speed that they ripped the nozzle from a gas pump. When police eventually stopped them, the nozzle was still in the car's gas tank. The affidavit says a 7-month-old baby also was in the car.
NATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE ADVISORY COUNCIL
FINAL REPORT AND
BY THE COUNCIL
July 11, 2006
Clint Hubbard, Police Department, City of Albuquerque, New Mexico
Vic Erevia, Secret Service
Lt. Paul Mauro, New York City Police Department (NYPD)
Paul Bennett, New York City Department of Environment (DEP)
Stuart Shannonhouse, Cobb County, Georgia
Tom Donahue, Central Intelligence Agency
Margie Gilbert, Central Intelligence Agency
Warren “Jack” Russell, Department of Defense
G. Rick Wilson, National Security Agency
Monica Gaughan, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
Gail Seavey, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Gary Loeffert, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Dean Carver, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Scott Harper, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Arnold Abraham, Office of the Director of National Intelligence