Despite looking as innocent as a newborn lamb, Juan Alicea is unable to pass off his fake one-dollar bill as the real thing. The lack of hair on George Washington’s dome gives it away.
“Washington is bald,” someone says, stating the obvious.
Alicea smiles. “Not everything that appears to be genuine is genuine,” he says as he clicks the next slide in his presentation. A ten-dollar bill sporting a portrait of Princess Leia, complete with honey bun hairdo, appears on the screen behind him.
Alicea isn’t a criminal trying to slip counterfeit currency past an unsuspecting cashier. Rather, he’s the agent in charge of the Chattanooga office of the Secret Service. And he’s not at a local retailer, but the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce talking to a roomful of business owners and their employees about the recent increase of counterfeit money in the city, which he attributes to the city’s growing economy.
“Between April and May, there was a sudden spike in counterfeit money locally, especially 20-dollar bills,” he says. “If this continues, businesses will become less comfortable with currency and stop accepting large bills.”
The Federal Reserve bank estimates that approximately $1.2 trillion in genuine U.S. currency is in circulation worldwide. In 2014, over $146.5 million in counterfeit currency was passed and seized globally.
Alicea says the amount of counterfeit money making the rounds in Chattanooga totals less than one percent of the genuine currency in circulation in the area. While not an egregious amount, it’s enough to make local businesses nervous. And it’s enough to get him out of his office and in front of local groups to teach them how to safeguard themselves.
The key, he says, isn’t learning what counterfeit currency looks like, but becoming familiar with the real thing. In other words, Alicea wants people to know their money.
“There are thousands of counterfeit notes out there, and they’re all different,” he says. “So instead of teaching you the differences, I’m going to show you what genuine currency looks like. Anything else is counterfeit.”
Alicea asks everyone in the room to dig their fives, tens, and twenties out of their purses and wallets and look at them. “Are they all the same? No. Does that mean some of them are counterfeit? Not necessarily,” he says. “No matter how old your currency is, it’s still good.”
To be able to identify authentic currency among the diverse group of bills printed over the years, one must learn to spot the various security features embedded in genuine U.S. money, some of which are either difficult or impossible for counterfeiters to duplicate.
Moving through a series of slides, Alicea points out how tiny red and blue fibers are embedded in each U.S. bill, how genuine currency contains a ghost image of the portrait on the bill, and how tilting a bill reveals the use of color-shifting ink. He then produces a small UV light and challenges everyone in the room to take turns trying to locate the security thread embedded in their bill.
“I can’t see it,” a man says, squinting at his five-dollar bill, printed in 2013.
“Uh oh,” Alicea says, with mock concern. He then shows the man how to locate the thread. The light illuminates a fluorescent blue strip just to the right of Lincoln.
“Thank God it’s real,” the man says. “This is all the money I have.”
Perhaps the most eye-opening security feature are the nearly microscopic words and numbers barely visible on different portions of each bill, a process called “microprinting.” For example, the redesigned ten-dollar bill contains the word “USA” and the number “10” beneath the torch.
While counterfeiters have various methods of replicating the other security features (knowing most cashiers won’t have a UV light handy, some will put glowing ink on a bill), microprinting is too small for most of them to pull off. “Most counterfeiters print their bills on a desktop printer. The printer will know something is there, but it’s too small to print, so it will put tiny dots there,” Alicea says.
Even the lamest counterfeiting measures can work because counterfeiters know their marks, Alicea says. “A counterfeiter will look for the longest line and the busiest cashier,” he says. “How many times have you gone through a line, and the cashier didn’t even look at you? That person didn’t know if you were male, female, or hybrid.”
Counterfeiters also know how to distract people, Alicea says. He asks a woman to show him her bills, and then reaches out and touches them one at a time. “You have a one, a five, and a ten,” he says, and then withdraws his hand. “Now describe my watch.”
“You see what the counterfeiter wants you to see,” he says. “It takes only a second to distract you, and once you take a counterfeit bill and put it in your register, it’s yours. You’re the proud owner of a piece of paper.”
Counterfeiters also know people are creatures of habit. Alicea asks the man with the five-dollar bill to look at it again. The man picks it up and inspects its face. “This is what everyone will do. It’s a habit,” Alicea says. “Counterfeiters know this, so some will put a color strip on the back of the bill.”
Counterfeiters have a large bag of tricks they can use when trying to pass off bad notes. In Hamilton County, a couple has been using counterfeit bills to buy bulk at Bed, Bath & Beyond, then crossing the border into Georgia and returning everything at another BB&B in exchange for cash. Others will mix counterfeit bills with the real thing to purchase big ticket items for less. And still others will employ measures that defeat the popular counterfeit pen, which cashiers are often seen swiping across large bills.
Alicea is not a fan of the pen because of the ease of getting around it. The ink in counterfeit pens contains iodine, which reacts with the starch used to make regular paper. (Genuine currency consists of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen, which doesn’t react with iodine.) Alicea says counterfeiters can coat their bills with any number of substances to keep the ink from coming in contact with the starch, including nail polish, deodorant, and car wax.
“I don’t want to see an increase in counterfeit bills with nail polish on them in Chattanooga after today’s class,” he says, raising an eyebrow at the room. Everyone laughs.
Alicea uses humor to keep the participants at his seminars engaged, but makes no bones about counterfeiting being a serious crime. For this reason, he ends with tips on how a person should react when they believe someone has given them fake money.
“Don’t spook the customer by overreacting,” Alicea says. “Simply look the person in the eye and say, ‘I think you’ve been scammed.’ Don’t accuse them of a crime. Make them a victim.”
Alicea says if the bill and the customer are legit, the person will probably insist it’s not fake. A counterfeiter will likely walk away.
During the interaction, the cashier should identify as many of the counterfeiter’s distinguishing features as possible. “Does he have a tattoo? Does he have blue eyes? Does he have just one eye? Noticing things like this will make you a good witness,” Alicea says.
“Most important of all, when you know a bill is counterfeit, do not return it to the customer,” Alicea says. “It’s contraband. It’s evidence.”
That said, Alicea says cashiers should do all things within reason, and never place themselves in harm’s way.
Alicea knows his business as well as the other people in the room know theirs. He spent years in Columbia, the counterfeit capital of the world until Peru claimed that ignominious distinction. What’s more, he says he can indentify North Korean “superdollars,” which are very good reproductions. And he’s seen more than his share of the fake stuff, as his office receives every counterfeit bill acquired within the 17-county region his office oversees.
Even though the overall percentage of counterfeit currency in circulation is low compared to the amount of real money out there, Alicea encourages retailers to be on their guard, especially during a rush. He also advises consumers to inspect their money before walking away from a point-of-sale terminal or a bank teller.
“Know your money,” he says, repeating a phrase he has used several times throughout his presentation. “The most effective countermeasure to counterfeiting is an informed and vigilant community.”
For information on how to detect counterfeit notes and the security features U.S. currency employs, go to www.secretservice.gov and www.moneyfactory.com. If you suspect you might have a counterfeit bill, or if you know anyone who manufactures, alters, sells, buys, passes, or possesses counterfeit U.S. currency, contact your local police department and the Chattanooga Secret Service at (423) 752-5125.