Two Heads Were Not Better Than One for Arizona Counterfeiter

Fake money
Fake money

Counterfeiting money is a detail-oriented art, but one Arizona man who attempted it wasn't quite scrupulous enough about his fake bills, according to the Prescott Daily Courier: He attempted to pass a forged $100 bill with a picture-perfect image of Benjamin Franklin -- but a watermark of Abraham Lincoln.

And Honest Abe gave him away.

At around 8 p.m. July 18, the man tried to buy $9 of merchandise at Goodwill, where a cashier suspicious of the mismatched watermark called the police. The customer beat a hasty retreat from the store, but within half an hour tried to pull the same stunt at a Safeway -- attempting to buy some cheap groceries to break his fraudulent C-note and get genuine bills as change. And, local police told DailyFinance, he later tried the same move at an Albertsons Grocery Store -- but was again thwarted.

The suspect left his bogus bills with the clerks at all three locations.

Watermark Bust

Among the hardest things for a counterfeiter of U.S. currency to duplicate well is the feel of the special rag-paper our cash is printed on. The counterfeiting technique employed to make the phony bills in this case involves "washing" a lower-denomination bill with bleach -- a $1 or, as in this case, a $5 -- then printing the image of a larger-denomination bill -- in this case, a $100 -- on the clean paper. This creates money that usually feels authentic to the touch and appears en pointe in coloration.

But this particular bone-headed move was a revelation for Lt. Ken Morley of the Special Operations Bureau for the Prescott Police Department.

"This is the first time I've seen it," Morley said. "I've seen well-done counterfeit bills with sophisticated printing, and some are really horrendous: they paste corners of a $20 on a $1 bill -- honest to God, I've seen that. It's so bogus."

This crook's technique, Morley said, "falls somewhere in between" on the counterfeiting spectrum.

But ultimately, the incongruous faces were a dead giveaway -- which is, after all, why the Treasury added the feature to new bills.

"All it would take is someone to hold that up to the light," Morley said. "The ghost head of Abe Lincoln gives it away on a $100 bill."

Copy That -- Or Not

"With the constant advancement in technology and the higher quality of machine copiers, counterfeiting becomes easier to do," said Joseph A. LaSorsa, a Secret Service retiree who heads the private investigation firm J.A. LaSorsa & Associates. "They are, however, limited in the use of correct paper, unless they resort to the use of the 'bleaching' technique."

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But many copiers are so advanced now that they won't allow you to photocopy money. Morley discovered this himself when he tried to send out a copy of one of the counterfeit bills and the machine wouldn't allow it.

Such difficulties could have been what led the suspect to attempt the bleaching technique, which is not flawless -- even disregarding the watermark issue. The bills were reportedly "softer" and lighter in color than legitimate greenbacks -- likely due to the washing, Morley said, which can make the paper more supple.

"The officer that had the bill said it felt a little bit different," Morley said. "Had I been in a grocery line and I'm the clerk, would I have noticed? Maybe not."

Hard Times for Everyone

Morley suggested that in today's weak economy, crooks may be trying to get a little more bang for their fake buck. The most commonly counterfeited bill is the $20, because those incite less scrutiny than $100s.

"They slide under the radar," Morley said. But the greater the denomination, the greater the profit margin. And these are desperate times.

"There's always someone trying to make a fast buck," Morley said, "But the fact that it's a $100 bill might be related to the economy."

For now the suspect remains at large, and the trail in Prescott has gone cold.

"We haven't had another complaint," Morley said. "We might have scared him off from here, but I'm sure he's trying some place else."