Doug Guthrie / The Detroit News
Crafty counterfeiters are giving a new meaning to the term money laundering. Crooks are circumventing technology intended to stop fraud by washing or bleaching the ink from lower-denomination bills and reprinting them as larger denominations with sophisticated computer scanners and printers.
The bills look and feel real because they are printed on real government currency paper. They can’t be detected by iodine test pens used by most cashiers to check for fakes because the paper is chemically correct.
As retailers hope for a return in consumer confidence during the holiday shopping season, U.S. Secret Service agents have visited Metro Detroit retailers to warn about the sophisticated counterfeiting technique that typically blossoms at this time of year.
Police across the nation are reporting an uptick in the appearance of counterfeit money. A sudden influx was noted earlier this month in suburban Atlanta. Washed or bleached $20, $50 and $100 bills were reported last month in California, New York, Washington, Louisiana and North Carolina.
An Eastpointe man was convicted of misdemeanor fraud last month for attempting to buy a used commercial snowblower in Plymouth with a fistful of $100 bills that started life as $5 notes.
“These are the best counterfeits I’ve seen,” said 35th District Judge Michael Gerou, who spent his college years working in a bank. “One at a time, you could pass these all day long. Trying to do it eight at a time is what tripped our guy.”
David Allan Barlow, 24, of Eastpointe was convicted in a trial before Gerou on a false pretenses charge. He got a 17-day jail sentence and promised to reimburse the Plymouth resident who sold him the snowblower.
So far, Thomas Frey, 40, hasn’t seen his snowblower or the cash.
Barlow hasn’t been charged with the more serious federal crime of counterfeiting. A U.S. Secret Service spokesman in Detroit declined to say if there are any ongoing criminal investigations involving bleached bills in Metro Detroit, but added agents are well aware of the technique.
And they are interested in speaking with Barlow. Federal counterfeiting charges can result in prison sentences of up to 20 years.
Barlow could not be located by The News, and his lawyer didn’t return calls. Barlow testified at his trial that he got the bills from a friend, who claimed he got them in payment last year for a car he sold in Detroit.
Frey said Barlow and two others with him acted nervous when he complained the eight bills “felt funny.” Frey also noticed a white plastic grocery sack was partially covering the license plate on the sport utility vehicle Barlow had loaded up with the snowblower.
“That’s when he got confrontational, and they took off,” said Frey.
The first Plymouth police officer to arrive declared the bills legal when he swiped one with an iodine pen. Later, a detective noticed all eight bills shared the same two serial numbers.