ORLANDO, Fla. -- As the holidays approach, shoppers and merchants alike can expect crowded parking lots, long checkout lines, and frayed tempers. One thing most people aren't expecting to run across is counterfeit currency.
But according to the U.S. Secret Service, counterfeiting cases tend to rise around the holidays. And the increase may be even more pronounced this year amid the down economy.
"People will print up money and go to chain stores such as Walmart and Target" during the holiday shopping season, said James Glendinning, acting special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Orlando office.
While high-tech crimes such as cyber-fraud and the use of ATM skimmers may be more widely publicized, old-fashioned counterfeiting is still a problem, and the numbers are surprising.
According to Glendinning, an average of $20,000 a week in counterfeit currency is taken out of circulation in Central Florida, although the total can rise to $30,000 and even $50,000 at times. Despite those totals, Glendinning points out that only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the currency in circulation is counterfeit.
"We see it fairly consistently, more since the economy has gotten rough," said Glendinning, whose territory covers Citrus, Sumter, Lake, Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Brevard counties. "We've definitely seen an increase in passing in the last two years."
There are two main sources for the counterfeit bills found in the area, Glendinning said:
--Bills printed on professional-grade presses in South America, primarily Colombia and Peru, and smuggled into Florida.
--Smaller amounts printed locally on inkjet or toner printers, "maybe $600 for a drug deal of for the weekend," Glendinning said.
University of Florida research scientist Read Hayes, who specializes in loss prevention, says that counterfeiters will look for busy stores and overwhelmed cashiers when they try to pass bills.
The holiday shopping season, with crowds of holiday shoppers and many new, temporary cashiers, offers counterfeiters "a perfect storm."
"In those smaller stores, particularly in a mall environment where it's very busy, they have a lot of opportunities," Hayes said. Counterfeiters "would like to use larger bills, but they know that bills of $20 and less get less attention."
While $100 bills are the most widely counterfeited, authorities recover fakes of all denominations -- even bogus $1 bills.
The quality of the phonies can vary widely. Some are quite convincing, especially those that are printed on genuine currency paper. In those cases, counterfeiters will bleach small-denomination bills and print fake larger-denomination notes on them. Others may be missing obvious features, are the wrong size or printed on lesser-quality paper.
The whole state is fertile ground for counterfeiters, and Central Florida has particular appeal, Glendinning said.
"It's a tourist area designed to separate people from their money, it's inexpensive to travel here, and easy to get in and out of," he said.
Glendinning advises people to be vigilant about money they accept. Genuine currency has numerous security features, he said, that are very difficult for counterfeiters to duplicate.
"If the note doesn't look or feel right, don't accept it," he said "It's up to whoever is accepting the note to determine its authenticity."
If a store accepts a counterfeit bill as real, and its own bank catches the error, the store's account would be debited by the bank. If the bank doesn't notice the bill is a fake and passes it along, the Federal Reserve charges the bank, Glendinning said.
Major retailers declined to discuss the issue, but there are common safeguards in place to stop bogus bills. Many stores use specially designed pens to check whether currency is genuine, and train clerks to look at and feel bills to see if they seem suspicious.
According to Glendinning, counterfeit bills are passed mostly in small amounts. "Someone will try to pass (fake bills) at a small store, and if the pass is successful, the merchant may use that counterfeit money in another transaction."
The Secret Service, founded in 1865 with the mission of stopping counterfeiting, plans to remain on the lookout for the fake bills.
"We work closely with all local law enforcement," said Glendinning. "If there's a passing call at 1 a.m., our guys will definitely go out on it. ... We want to seize as much as we can before it gets into circulation."
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