Local businesses bummed out by bogus bucks

Columbia City businesses have been targeted recently by what Book Exchange owner Jim Holmes thinks is a counterfeiting ring that has successfully passed several bogus $20s.

He should know. "I actually got three of them," said Holmes, who added that he's heard of other local merchants getting stuck with the funny money.

That includes Angie's Tavern, which ended up with one of the $20s, along with a nearby convenience store, which ended up with a fake $5 bill, he said in some surprise. "It doesn't seem it would be worth going to prison for a $5."

A taxi driver also filed a Jan. 27 police report when he ended up with two counterfeit $20s he got in payment from a woman he picked up in the 1300 block of 12th Avenue South and drove to Tacoma.

And a Jan. 28 police report indicates a Domino's Pizza deliveryman was given a fake $50 when he delivered two large pizzas, two large bottles of soda and an order of cinnamon sticks to a woman who was waiting for him outside of a building in the 7300 block of Rainier Avenue South.

Holmes is chalking up his experience to bad luck, though. "I didn't even file a police report." But he did fire-off an e-mail about his experience to Tiffany Crosby, the manager of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, and Crosby said she forwarded the message to the business organization's members.

Neighborhood groups also got the e-mail, said Holmes, who noted that he kept one of the counterfeit $20s and has shown around half a dozen business owners the bill and how a special marking pen can be used to tell if a bill is genuine or not.

Store staff took in two of the bogus 20s, but Holmes also took one in payment himself. It was from a woman who bought a $6 book when the store was busy and he didn't take the time to check the bill until later. Holmes was caught off guard. "I always look at $50s and $100s," he said, "but never 20s."

But there was something odd about the $20 when Holmes finally got around to checking it. "It felt a little funny," he said. So, Holmes added, he held the $20 up to the light and discovered it didn't have a magnetic strip running down the right side, which was also missing a watermark image of the president shown on the bill.

Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb said the normal procedure in counterfeit cases is for police to take a report, keep the funny money and turn over everything to the Secret Service, a division of the Treasury Department.

Secret Service Special Agent Annette Knipfing said she knew of no current cases in Columbia City, but that's not surprising. "We do get a lot of counterfeit cases without a suspect," she said. "If there is suspect information we do follow up."

In the case of Angie's Tavern, no one could remember who passed the counterfeit $20, and police found there was no information about suspects at the addresses involved in the Domino's rip-off and the address where the cabbie picked up the woman who cheated him.

Knipfing said the days are long gone when counterfeiters used an offset press to print up phony money. In fact, Knipfing said, she's only seen one bill like that in the seven years she's worked for the Secret Service.

These days, the vast majority of counterfeit bills are printed using a color copier or a scanner, home computer and a decent color printer, she said. Counterfeit $100s are the norm overseas, but bogus $20s are the norm in this country, according to Knipfing.

Besides the magnetic strip and the watermark, people can use the special marking pen to determine if a bill is counterfeit. But Knipfing cautions that the pen technique might indicate legitimate bills are fake because the chemical composition of the paper changes over time.

The amount of counterfeit money showing up has held fairly steady the last few years, she said, but it's no small amount. The Secret Service office is a clearinghouse for Western Washington, and the agency deals with $8,000 to $10,000 in fake bills every week, Knipfing said.

As for Holmes and the other Columbia City businesses that ended up with phony money, Knipfing isn't really surprised they were successfully targeted. "The truth is, people don't pay attention."

Maybe so, but Holmes is hoping his warning e-mail will change that attitude, even though the issue is new to him, too. "It (counterfeit cash) never seemed to be a problem before," he said of the three years he's run his bookstore.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.

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