A business inadvertently gives you counterfeit money — are you stuck with it? In most cases, yes. But what if that business happens to be a branch of the federal government?
Los Angeles resident David Lipin found himself asking this question the other day after he cashed a $1,000 Postal Service money order at a West Hollywood post office.
He said the postal worker handed him 10 $20 bills and eight $100 bills.
Lipin, 43, said he then stopped at a nearby gas station to fill his tank. He tried to pay with one of his new $100 bills.
"The clerk took a close look at it and said it was fake," Lipin told me. "Then she looked at some of the other $100 bills. She said they were fake too, and she called the police."
Alarmed, Lipin phoned a lawyer friend. At his friend's urging, he too called the Los Angeles Police Department to report that he'd been given bogus bills. "I wanted it very clear that I was a victim and not someone trying to pawn off some counterfeit dollars," Lipin said.
The cops arrived at the gas station and inspected the cash. They shook their heads.
"The police said the $100 bills were actually $5 bills that had been bleached and altered," Lipin recalled. "They showed me how you could hold them up to the light and see Abraham Lincoln's face. All eight turned out to be counterfeit."
So now what? The police took a report but said they couldn't do anything. They suggested that Lipin try the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, which serves West Hollywood.
A sheriff's deputy also said they couldn't do much and suggested he try the Secret Service. So did the post office when Lipin returned to the same branch that had given him the funny money.
"We don't have anything in our regulations to address this," said Richard Maher, a spokesman for the Postal Service.
He added that even though Lipin has a receipt showing he cashed his money order at the post office, it's impossible to verify that he received the bogus bills in the transaction. "What if he got them after he left the post office?" Maher asked.
The Secret Service was sympathetic toward Lipin's situation. But an agent basically told him he was out of luck. Unless an investigation turned up a counterfeiting mastermind, the buck would stop with Lipin.
"Unfortunately, counterfeit money is like a hot potato," said Wayne Williams, deputy special agent in charge of the Secret Service's L.A. office. "Whoever ends up with it last is the victim."
Well, yes, but Lipin got his bogus cash from the U.S. Postal Service, redeeming a Postal Service money order. Shouldn't Uncle Sam bear some responsibility?
"Not really," Williams replied. "The post office operates as a business. It takes in money from customers. Postal workers don't really have special equipment or training to spot counterfeit bills. Unless they're in on it, this isn't their responsibility."
So Lipin is hosed?
Williams advised anyone who receives questionable cash to stop by a bank and ask what the money pros have to say. If a bill is indeed counterfeit, contact the Secret Service and turn it in to authorities. Maybe they'll be able to find out where it came from, maybe not.
And don't try and be clever by spending the bogus bill elsewhere — passing the hot potato to someone else, as it were.
"If you tried to cash a bill you were told was fake, you could be arrested," Williams warned.
We're talking a felony, by the way, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
I asked readers to contact Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with their thoughts on my recent columns on public transportation. He received hundreds of e-mails expressing frustration with our current transit system and commuters' hopes for improvement.
And he wasted no time in responding.
Villaraigosa submitted a motion to the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority last week calling for steps to create daily and weekly EZ Passes good for all transit systems in the county, as well as a better sales network so that commuters can readily find the passes if they want them.
The mayor called for the MTA to improve its website and wireless offerings to help commuters navigate regional transit systems and make the best use of the bus and rail network.
He also wants the MTA's leaders to sit down with their counterparts at Metrolink to finally hash out ways to avoid duplication in services and thus allocate scant financial resources more effectively.
Separately, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich submitted an amendment to Villaraigosa's motion that would direct the MTA to look into distance- and time-based pricing — that is, setting fares according to the number of miles traveled and when you're using public transit.
If much of this sounds familiar, it's because they were among the suggestions I made in my column and that readers said they supported.
"It's not enough to build new rail lines and a sustainable transit network," Villaraigosa said. "We also need to provide the highest level of customer convenience and service for our riders. Making transfers between lines easier and taking advantage of technology are just two ways we can better serve and attract riders."
Art Leahy, chief executive of the MTA, told me he expected the transit agency's board to approve the mayor's motion and Antonovich's amendment Thursday and for work on the measures to begin immediately.
"This is completely feasible," he said. "We should do these things."
We should, and it's great to see city and county officials at last getting serious about public transit. But the real heavy lifting is still ahead — gas taxes, parking fees, congestion pricing, elevated rails.
I'll keep you posted.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org