Those paying with cash can expect a little added scrutiny this shopping season in Downtown Oak Park, especially with larger bills.

The proliferation of counterfeit bills, including some especially hard-to-spot $50 and $100 bills, led Downtown Oak Park to address funny money at its annual pre-holiday meeting. A relatively new counterfeiting process, known as the “bleach five,” can even fool the experts.

“They showed me one and I said, ‘This isn’t phony,'” said Oak Park Police Officer Jim Vonesh. Vonesh was depositing money seized in a drug sting when the bank found four fake bills in the deposit.

Jay Johnston, special agent with the Secret Service, said counterfeiters will bleach the ink off $5 bills and reprint the bill with a $50 or $100 denomination, making useless the markers whose ink changes color to detect fakes.

Johnston said most fakes-as much as 80 percent of them-are created with ink jet printers. The good ones, though, are made with offset printing.

The Sun-Times reported in October that roughly $20,000 of counterfeit money is passed in Chicago every week.

So how can fakes be spotted? The answer is in the details.

“With genuine money, everything is real clear and concise,” Johnston said, referring to the printing on the bill. The real stuff also has denomination-specific security threads, fluorescent inks that show up under black lights, color-shifting ink, and a watermark portrait that should match the dead president in the middle of the bill.

Counterfeit bills’ printing often is less precise, and security threads are printed on the bills, rather than being embedded in the note. Glitter in the ink tries to pass for color-shifting ink.

And though bills are referred to as paper, U.S. currency is printed on a mix of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen. The detector pens change color when they contact starch, so it’s easy to get a false positive on a good bill that’s picked up starches, maybe in the wash, Johnston said.

“Do not totally rely on the pen,” he said.

Johnston recommended merchants keep a small flashlight near the register to help see a bill’s security features. He added that an easy detector for most bills is running a little water on them-poorly made ink jet bills (and most fakes are poorly made) will smear.

Although police say only a few fake bills were found by downtown merchants last holiday season, they told business owners to pay close attention to the bills they take. The penalty for not doing so is being out the money lost by accepting fake currency.

Oak Park police said to call 911 if they suspect a bill is counterfeit, and that nine times out of 10, counterfeiting is not a violent crime.

“If they know [the bill] is counterfeit, and you hesitate, they’re gone,” Vonesh said.

Some merchants were unsure about making their customers uneasy by thoroughly checking bills. But Meme Gaudyn Lowery of Meme’s Antiques, 1109 Westgate, said merchants have the right to be sure.

“It’s your store,” she said. “You should be worried about it.”

A clearly fake Bill

On Halloween, a man stopped in a Batesville, Ark., gas station to buy some smokes, producing a $100 bill to pay for them. However, the bill bore not Benjamin Franklin’s name and mug-it had instead no portrait at all, with the word “Clinton” below, the Associated Press reported.

The ink wasn’t even dry.

Sheriff’s Lieutenant Brenda Bittle told the AP: “Of all the cases I’ve worked with phony money, this is the sorriest bill I’ve ever seen.”

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