Police have seized thousands of dollars in counterfeit money from Columbus businesses since November, and authorities are urging consumers and employees to remain vigilant — especially during hectic holiday shopping.
From small, local restaurants to large national retailers, police have taken fake money in denominations ranging from $1 to $100, with $20 and $50 bills the most common found.
“It is alarming, and it is a trend right now that we need to get control of,” said Lt. Matt Myers, public information officer for Columbus Police Department.
Myers said people who knowingly try to pay with fake money are committing a felony.
Myers said local police are working with the U.S. Secret Service to determine the origin of the counterfeit bills found recently in Columbus.
“It’s a persistent problem in Indiana,” said Roger Goodes, special agent in charge of the Secret Service office in Indianapolis. “Anybody with a scanner and a printer can make counterfeit money.”
However, the quality of fake bills typically is low, and they easily can be spotted if people pay attention to security features such as the watermark or the security thread of genuine bills, he said.
Fake money typically appears more frequently during the year-end holidays, Goodes said, when busy store clerks are dealing with long lines and cranky customers and might have less time to verify a bill’s genuineness.
Myers and Goodes said phony currency hurts everybody. Businesses recover losses they incur from fake currency just as they do from theft: Prices rise for everybody else.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, about 25 fake bills per day are seized by authorities in the five-state region that includes most of Indiana.
About $80 million in fake currency was passed nationwide within the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1, said Max Milien, spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington, D.C.
While the overall affect on the U.S. economy is small, Goodes said that small businesses can take a significant financial hit from phony money.
For a small business that accepts a fake $100 and gives out a lot of change, that fake bill can eliminate a whole day’s profit, Goodes said.
Myers urged local businesses to train their employees to spot fake bills and to take the time to check for security features.
“There needs to be an awareness campaign,” Myers said. “They need to know what to look for.”
Features that distinguish real bills from fake ones include a watermark that is visible from either side when held up to a light source, a security thread embedded vertically in the paper and randomly disbursed red and blue fibers throughout the paper.
People and businesses who find they are in possession of counterfeit bills should contact police right away, authorities said. The downside for consumers: They lose the money, because fake bills are not replaced.
Check money when you receive it, Milien suggested. Get your money from banks, and be careful when strangers ask you to make change for a larger denomination.
“Be vigilant,” Milien said.