YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West

Computers Become the Key to Counterfeiting

Currency: As amateurs churn out bogus bills on common equipment, government is counting on new high-tech $20 note to make the crime harder.


Equipped with little more than home computers and $100 scanners, amateur counterfeiters have been sending reams of bogus currency into the marketplace. The government is hoping that the new $20 bill, the most commonly counterfeited denomination in the United States, will put a dent in the illicit copying.

Less than 1% of the fake money seized nationally in 1995 was computer-generated, but about 40% is today, according to U.S. Secret Service figures. In Los Angeles County, $4.2 million was passed in 1997, compared with $2.7 million four years before; in Orange County, the number more than doubled during that time, from $288,000 to $765,000.

The same technology that lets personal computer users scan and print photo-quality copies of family snapshots has made it tempting for some to try duplicating things that are illegal to copy--like money.

Among recent cases: a Yorba Linda real estate appraiser worried about his finances who set up shop in his garage, two college freshmen in Kentucky accused of printing bills in their dorm, and a Simi Valley man charged with producing more than $1,000 in phony $20 notes on his company's personal computer.

"What we're seeing now is not just counterfeiters with criminal histories, but regular people," said Robert Brenner, the agent in charge of the Santa Ana office of the Secret Service.

Federal officials, meanwhile, are trying to make bills harder to copy. Although the most obvious change in the new $20 is the larger portrait of Andrew Jackson, it has difficult-to-duplicate details such as faint identifying markers in the paper.

The new $20, which began circulating in September and has by now found its way into the hands and wallets of most Americans, follows redesigns of the $100 note in 1996 and the $50 bill last year.

Although the $100 bill is not as commonly used by consumers in the United States, it is the favorite denomination of currency criminals abroad. And the new $100 bill has had a major dampening effect on counterfeiting there. In 1995, before the new note was introduced, more than $231 million in bogus U.S. money was passed internationally; by last year, that amount had dropped to slightly more than $64 million.

Government officials hope that the new $20 bill will have the same effect domestically.

"It's the note we most readily use," said Jim Mackin, a Secret Service spokesman. "It's the bill of choice--the most used note after the $1 bill."

The paper is one of the few elements of fake-money production that desktop counterfeiters are hard-pressed to duplicate.

Most buy high-quality paper similar to that used for actual currency, which can be purchased legally from the manufacturer. But salesclerks who pay attention generally can feel the difference.

Among the new bill's features are a subtle watermark next to the portrait of Andrew Jackson and a polymer thread visible only when the bill is held up to the light. Both are embedded in the paper.

Nationwide, more than $31 million in counterfeit money found its way into circulation last year, most of it caught by banks. By that time, the person who last had the bill--usually a shop owner--was stuck with the loss.

Los Angeles County routinely holds the first or second spot on the Secret Service's weekly list of the nation's leading centers of counterfeit money production. Orange County often makes the top five.

In the fiscal year that ended in July, 105 people were arrested in 10 separate cases of money counterfeiting in Los Angeles County. Every case involved use of either a computer or an office copier.

Real estate appraiser Kevin Metcalf, hurting after the loss of a major client, decided to set up shop in his Yorba Linda garage with the goal of printing bogus $20 bills that he and a cohort planned to spend in Las Vegas. He did succeed in passing several phony notes at fast-food restaurants in the San Fernando Valley, prosecutors later said, but an anonymous tip led to a sting operation that may land Metcalf in prison.

Brock Christner, a Simi Valley resident, was arrested with two companions last year after police raided the Moorpark company at which he worked. Police said the 20-year-old man used a personal computer at the company to print fake $20 bills on heavy printer paper. Eventually he pleaded guilty and served four months in jail, a sheriff's spokesman said.

And a Florida man was arrested, also in 1997, after authorities confiscated a personal computer and $117,000 in bogus $20s, $50s and $100s from his Simi Valley storage locker.

The inkjet counterfeiting jobs are generally lower in quality than those produced through more elaborate and expensive offset printing operations. The paper is usually thinner or stiffer than the real thing, the printing fuzzier and the colors slightly off. White areas are filled with tiny dots instead of the minuscule red and blue security fibers found in government-issued money.

Los Angeles Times Articles