Passing the buck

Nine US$50 bills recently changed hands in an East Rand mall. By the time the shop owner’s bank discovered they had been made on an ink-jet printer the customer was long gone.

But local agents of the United States Secret Service (USSS) fed the serial numbers into an international counterfeit database and discovered that bills from the same batch had been passed a few weeks earlier in Dedham, Massachusetts, as well as in Hawaii, Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida.

The movements of a suspect can be correlated with the date the bills were passed, and now the net is closing in on a man who is probably a resident of Dedham.
Many counterfeiters habitually pass or sell their first phoney bucks close to home.

The story emerged at a recent Reserve Bank seminar prompted by concern over the dangers of counterfeiting. USSS agents stationed here serve as consultants to the South African Police Service, the Scorpions and the Reserve Bank.

In 1999 $13-million in fake notes were passed in South Africa, but the campaign against counterfeiters has been so successful that the figure for the period from October last year to September was only $226 750. These bills were seized before reaching the public; only $78 000 in total face value was successfully passed, showing how effectively local law-enforcement agencies have fought the forgers.

South Africa once ranked third behind Colombia and Bulgaria in the counterfeit stakes. Now the country is in a highly creditable 29th place.

In the US nearly $40-million in dud bills were passed during January to August, out of $300-billion in circulation. Outside the US the circulation is $200-billion, and $13-million in “home-made” notes were passed during the same period. The $100 bill is the most popular overseas forgery; in the US it is the $20 bill.

Counterfeit rand notes are made and passed in South Africa, but to a lesser face value than dollar bills. Reserve Bank figures for the year ending August 2002 show that fake notes with a face value of R624 880 were passed, three quarters of them being R100 notes. Less than 5% of these were photocopied, and 25% were lithographic; the remaining 70% had been produced on bubblejet printers.

What made South Africa a buck-passer’s paradise?

It’s the best economy in Africa to prey upon, being large and open. Although statistics are hard to come by, agents suspect that countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, where the greenback serves as the official currency, are also magnets for counterfeiters.

What should one look for when offered cash payment in dollars? Apart from the familiar safety features shared by the rand, such as a watermark and a security thread, dollar bills (with the exception of the $5) have a green number in the bottom right-hand corner that appears black when looked at from an angle. The security threads glow in different colours under ultraviolet light: the $100 is red, the $50 yellow, the $20 green and the $10 orange.

When doing business with someone who keeps his cash in two separate pockets, beware.

It is important to inform the authorities immediately when a fake dollar bill is passed. But the trail is often allowed to go cold, and banks can be remiss in reporting. The person who accepts the bill may be unfamiliar with the currency, or fail to spot the telltale marks. In such a case the fake is only picked up much later at the bank—or by the Reserve Bank.

The victim of the crime is the innocent passer, the one left holding a worthless piece of paper. Sometimes he will attempt to pass the financial loss to someone else, and such compounded criminality is hard to prove.

The keys to successful investigation are tracking the note’s history in a series of interviews, and the database correlation of serial numbers.

The silent men in suits

The United States Secret Service (USSS) is much older than the CIA or the FBI, and should not be confused with these institutions. It was founded 137 years ago during the Civil War to eliminate the flood of counterfeits that the Confederacy was using as an economic weapon against the Union.

Apart from trailing counterfeiters, agents investigate white-collar crimes and are responsible for the safety of the president, the vice-president and visiting heads of state.

The South African presidential protection unit collaborates with the USSS when President Thabo Mbeki visits the US.

USSS agents are the silent men in suits who mingle in the motorcade when President George W Bush is campaigning. There are more than 2 000 agents in 130 offices.

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