In June, several businesses in Prescott and surrounding areas reported receiving counterfeit money in exchange for goods and services.
Zeke’s Eatin’ Place, located in the Frontier Village Center off of Highway 69, was one of those businesses.
Co-owner Tracey Williams remembers the incident well. Two customers had come in to eat. As soon they finished their meal, they placed two counterfeit $20 bills on the tray with their check, said “thanks,” and walked out before the waitress could check if they paid appropriately.
“When the server went back over to pick up the tray, she looked at it, went to me and said ‘this isn’t real, this isn’t real,’” Williams said.
The money was clearly fake, she said.
“Look wise, if you walked by it you wouldn’t be able to tell, but as soon as you touched it, you knew it wasn’t money,” Williams said. “It was really smooth. The paper wasn’t right at all. It was nothing like real money.”
By the time they knew what had happened, the scammers had already driven away. Williams reported it to the Yavapai-Prescott Tribal Police and provided a description of the suspects.
“They were covered in tattoos,” Williams said. “And the man was bald.”
She then called her bank to tell them about it, but found out that banks do not compensate its customers for this form of fraud.
“Sucks to be you at that point,” she said. “We just told the girls, ‘you need to keep your eyes peeled. When someone gets up to go, if you haven’t gone over to check, you need to make sure [the money] is there or whatever.’”
Though it’s unclear whether the cases are related to what happened at Zeke’s, the Prescott Police Department (PPD) is also investigating a couple of situations involving the passing and possession of forged $20 bills in June, said PPD officials.
“Our cases involved several hundred dollars in counterfeit bills that were used by three individuals,” said Deputy Chief Amy Bonney.
The businesses targeted were Wal-Mart and SWC Prescott Dispensary, a medical marijuana dispensary.
In the Wal-Mart cases, the bills were identified as fake because identical serial numbers were used on numerous bills. In the dispensary case, there were multiple identifiers. “The ink was different from valid bills, the lack of a security stripe and a security pen was used,” said PPD spokesperson David Fuller.
Two of the suspects allegedly connected to these cases were Robert Van Gundy and Ashley Zimmerman. Both were arrested, but detectives are still trying to determine the nature of their involvement and how they came into possession of the counterfeit bills, Bonney said. A third suspect has yet to be identified or found, so the investigation is ongoing.
The counterfeit activity appeared to die down for several weeks until a fake $10 bill was passed at a McDonald’s in Prescott Wednesday, July 25.
Though the McDonald’s cashier suspected the bill was fake, she was unsure whether or not to confront the customer about it, so she chose to look further at the bill later on, Fuller said.
Fuller said it’s too early in the investigation of the McDonald’s case to speculate if it was in any way connected to the other cases in June.
“What you often see with these type of things is that it sort of floods the market for a very short period of time,” Fuller said. “People make a bunch of counterfeit bills and then go out and use them, so we have kind of a rash of bills turned into us, and then it kind of lulls, because those bills go out of circulation.”
HOW TO TELL REAL FROM FAKE
The counterfeiting of legal tender is a problem that has plagued both governments and consumers for centuries.
As criminals have devised new and more elaborate ways to break the law, the United States Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States, has added more and more security measures to help identify the real from the fake.
The best way to determine whether a bill is genuine is to rely on the security features placed into bills of $5 denomination or higher, according to the Federal Reserve. These include watermarks and security threads.
Though counterfeit detection pens are a cheap way to check bills, they’re not always the most accurate, according to the Federal Reserve’s website. These pens check whether the bills are made of wood-based paper or fiber-based paper. U.S. paper currency is made up of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. So if a bill is made of wood-based paper, the pen shows black on the bill — proving it’s fake. If the bill is made of fiber-based paper, then no discoloration occurs. Though some counterfeit bills are simply printed on regular paper, more sophisticated counterfeit operations use fabric-based bills, negating the effectiveness of security pens.
Watermarks in U.S. paper currency are much more difficult to fabricate and can simply be seen by holding bills up to a light source. Security threads also change colors under ultraviolet lights, so having an ultraviolet lamp near a cash register is an easy way to check if a bill is genuine. Bills $5 or more change different colors, so it’s useful to know what color is associated with each bill, according to the United States Secret Service.
For more information on how to authenticate money, go to www.uscurrency.gov.
What to do if you suspect a counterfeit
For your personal safety, the United States Secret Service recommends taking the following actions when presented with a bill that may be counterfeit:
• Do not put yourself in danger.
• If possible, do not return the bill to the passer.
• Delay the passer with some excuse, if possible.
• Observe the passer’s description — and their companions’ descriptions — and write down their vehicle license plate numbers if you can.
• Contact the local police department or call the U.S. Secret Service office.
• Write your initials and date in the white border area of the suspected counterfeit note.
• Do not handle the counterfeit note. Place it inside a protective cover, a plastic bag, or envelope to protect it until you place it in the hands of an identified law enforcement officer or Secret Service agent.
The Prescott Police Department can be reached at 928-777-1900; Prescott Valley Police, 928-772-9261; Chino Valley Police, 928-636-4223; Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, 928-771-3260.
The Secret Service can be reached at 202-406-5708.
Information provided by the U.S. Secret Service.