April 29, 2004 – Police investigators are warning small shops, restaurants and V.I. Carnival vendors to watch out for counterfeit money circulating locally. Phony $20 bills resembling the multicolor notes first issued last fall by the U.S. Treasury Department surfaced a few weeks ago and are believed to have originated elsewhere in the Caribbean.
In recent weeks, some phony $5 bills also have appeared in the territory, but on a much smaller scale and of a less-sophisticated quality, Sgt. Thomas Hannah, Police Department spokesman, said.
Hannah said Carnival event vendors especially need to check $20 bills being offered for purchases. Most of the counterfeit money, he said, has been passed in crowded, poorly lighted night spots where business operators depend on volume sales turned quickly.
Hannah offered this word of caution on Wednesday to Carnival vendors: "If someone is coming to you with a $20 bill to buy a 50-cent johnny cake or a $1 drink, ask them if they have 50 cents in their hand, or ask them for the dollar. Don't take the $20 bill unless you're sure it's a $20 bill. Take that extra moment, that precaution, to take a look at it."
Authorities say they believe the counterfeiters of the $20 notes have been using state-of-the-art digital and laser reproduction equipment.
Referring to the bogus $5 bills, Hannah said: "We've gotten a few, believe it or not, and we were asking why someone would go to that level to do that … It was someone, possibly a young person, doing that, actually photocopying and using a scanner." Compared to the number of twenties entering the market, "it wasn't that many," he added.
The Treasury Department promoted the design of the new $20 bill as less susceptible to illegal duplication than the old currency. Several devices can be used to detect fake money, Hannah said.
There are "special ultraviolet lights on the market," he said. "It's worth a $50 investment in your business to purchase one of them." To test a suspect bill, you pass it under the light, "and if it starts to glow, then you know the paper that is being used is not the real paper for U.S. currency," he said. There also are pen-like devices that work similarly, he said.
For those without such aids, Hannah said, the best thing is simply to hold a suspect bill up to the light and look for the watermark — a shadowy smaller version of the portrait on the face of the bill that appears at one side and can be seen from either side of the note. Counterfeit bills will not display the watermark, he said.
However, it should be noted that legitimate older "greenbacks" still in circulation from before the issuance of the new $20 bill do not have a watermark, either.
The newer bills — both the $20 and the $50 unveiled by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving this week for circulation beginning next fall — contain images printed in inks that change color depending on how the notes are held. Additionally, a vertical security thread and a number of numerals are embedded in the bills. (See "Coming soon: more colorful 'greenbacks'.)
Hannah said money changers should scrutinize $20 bills with care. Some of the bills look so authentic that they have passed through some local banks undetected, he said.
Fake bills also have shown up in Puerto Rico and other nearby islands, he said, and investigators have traced their origin to one Caribbean island, which he declined to identify.
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