In the noise, bustle and flashing lights of a busy bar, it’s easy to miss little things, like a counterfeit $20 that gets mixed in with the bar’s real money.
That’s what police say probably happened Feb. 8, the day before an employee of the College Bar found the fake bill and reported it. That Saturday night call was the second of three counterfeit reports police have responded to this year – the other two, a fake $100 bill someone tried to use at a Stillwater Walmart and three $20 bills someone used to pay for a delivery from Papa John’s. Just like the College Bar case, police didn’t know where the money came from.
It’s an all-too-common scenario. In 2018, the Stillwater Police Department investigated 34 cases of counterfeit cash, adding up to more than $3,500 of fake money. The bills ranged from $5 to $100.
Capt. Kyle Gibbs of the SPD said $20 bills are the most common.
Because counterfeit is worthless – there’s no government buy-back program if a business or individual accidentally accepts a counterfeit bill – that means $3,500 of loss over the course of 2018.
“That’s the downside, you just lost the $20, or whatever amount of counterfeit cash you end up with, you just lost that,” Gibbs said. “It’s worthless.”
Investigating counterfeit is difficult. In most cases, police are called after the fact, when a business is counting money and realizes they have a fake bill, or when they try to turn it into the bank and the bank catches it. The person reporting it rarely knows where the bill came from, which means the police have few, if any, leads. When a business or person reports counterfeit to the police, the SPD sends a patrol officer who gathers information and passes it on to Detective Brett Moore.
Moore is what Gibbs calls the “central collection point” for counterfeit cash information. He keeps track of all of the counterfeit investigations and all the names and serial numbers of bills confiscated by police.
“I do keep a log, mainly just of serial numbers, to see if we have an on-going pattern to where the same serial numbers are being used multiple times,” Moore said. “I can kind of tie it together that way.”
Moore also works with the Secret Service, the agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of counterfeit money.
But the Secret Service will only open an investigation if the amount of counterfeit cash is above $100,000, Gibbs said. That rarely happens in Stillwater. In cases with a smaller amount of counterfeit money, the county will attempt to prosecute under the crime of “uttering a forged instrument.”
The structure of a counterfeit investigation, Gibbs said, is a lot like a drug investigation.
“Just like you do a drug investigation, you’re using the users to get back to the dealers,” Gibbs said. “They’re using the people passing the counterfeit to get back to the printers. They’re trying to find the source of the counterfeit money.”
Police say you should keep your eyes open to avoid accepting counterfeit money. It’s usually pretty obvious if you’re paying attention, Moore said. Most of what he has seen either has Chinese lettering on it or is clearly marked as “movie money.”
“The paper’s wrong, the color’s wrong … their cutting lines are not straight,” Moore said. “There’s white exposed. It’s not very good quality at all.”
If you do accidentally end up with counterfeit money, don’t worry. You won’t be prosecuted for having it, only for trying to pass it off as real. If having it in your possession makes you uncomfortable, Moore said you can bring it to the police department and the police will pass it on to the Secret Service to be destroyed. But if you do try to pass it off as real, you might end up on Moore’s list.