By Beth Lawrence
Several times a year the Sylva Police Department responds to calls of counterfeit money being passed to unsuspecting people.
“We might not see it for five months,” Chief Chris Hatton said. “Then we might see several in a month. It’s sporadic.”
In February an unknown person attempted to pass a fake $100 bill at O’Reilly Auto Parts, meaning the company would have been out the cost of the merchandise and $100 in currency if the bill had been accepted.
Sometimes a counterfeit bill is so convincing that it is hard to spot; other times detecting a fake should be easier.
“The money was clearly marked that it wasn’t real money,” Hatton said. “It’s the motion picture money that goes around from time to time.”
Just because the bills might be easy to spot does not mean the person passing them is easy to catch.
So far in 2021, SPD has collected fake bills but has not made any arrests.
Some of the bills marked as “movie money” were so realistic it could be mistaken for genuine without close examination, Hatton said.
“At the time the Sylva Police Department was made aware of these bills they had been reported as found property with no suspects in possession of them,” Hatton said.
Typically, counterfeiters attempt to pass bills of lower denominations such as $5 and $20 bills in order to avoid suspicion.
If the person scamming an establishment is challenged, they typically will not wait around for police to arrive, which can make apprehension difficult.
Law enforcement uses witness statements, security footage, works with other law enforcement agencies, and collects any evidence available to locate counterfeiters, but if suspects are not local, identifying them can be difficult.
There are steps businesses and individuals can take to protect themselves, one of which is a counterfeit-detecting pen. But the marker is not always reliable, especially with well-done forgeries.
“With high quality counterfeit money even those can show a false negative,” Hatton said.
“Just because you see that the bill has marks on it, as if it’s been tested for authenticity before, that doesn’t mean it’s real. Counterfeiters will sometimes put these pen marks on the bills to help make them seem legitimate.”
It is OK to question money you suspect might be fake, and it is OK to call law enforcement if you suspect a fake.
Forging and counterfeiting banknotes and other monetary instruments are Class I felonies, as is possessing one. Multiple charges or convictions could cause the crime to be elevated to another class of felony.
As with other crimes, passing fake money seems to increase at certain times of year.
“All crimes relating to money seem to increase toward the holiday season beginning in November,” Hatton said. “Oftentimes poor weather, wanting gifts for family members, and lack of work are a catalyst for people to try to get money any way they can.”
Though it may seem like an innocuous crime, passing forged money still creates victims.
Businesses lose both money and merchandise, and individuals who receive overlooked counterfeit bills through other transactions are forced to absorb the loss of money if they cannot trace the fake bill back to where they received it.
If a person is convicted, they can be forced to pay restitution.
“This isn’t a harmless crime,” Hatton said. “Either an individual is getting scammed or a local business takes a loss.”