Counterfeiting Is not Terrorism

This is a surreal story of someone who was chained up for hours for trying to spend $2 bills. Clerks at Best Buy thought the bills were counterfeit, and had him arrested.

The most surreal quote of the article is the last sentence:

Commenting on the incident, Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey told the Sun: "It's a sign that we're all a little nervous in the post-9/11 world."

What in the world do the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have to do with counterfeiting? How does being "a little nervous in the post-9/11 world" have anything to do with this incident? Counterfeiting is not terrorism; it isn't even a little bit like terrorism.

EDITED TO ADD (5/30): The story is from 2005.

Posted on May 30, 2007 at 1:03 PM • 56 Comments

Comments

SteveMay 30, 2007 1:21 PM

Two items of note: The story is a bit stale (check the dateline) and it's posted on World Net Daily, only a couple of notches above the Weekly World News, in my opinion. Maybe a notch and a half above.

Baltimore ResidentMay 30, 2007 1:25 PM

What an outrage! What a bunch of dummies in the Baltimore Police Department. You take down names and collect the evidence, then you let the people who know what they are doing examine the evidence. There are significant legal liabilities for this sort of abuse of police powers. There was no evidence that a crime had been committed. Counterfeiting $2 bills hasn't happened in decades. Frankly, it's not worth the work. A phone call to the Secret Service would have let them know that there are no known $2 bill counterfeiters operating in this country.

RealistMay 30, 2007 1:28 PM

Gee, Bruce, how is posting stories like this that are 2 years old any different of the FUD you accuse others of?

PJMay 30, 2007 1:28 PM

I continue to work through a stack of 'old' $20 bills that I hung onto when the first updates were made. They are now two revisions back. It is only in the past few months that the bills have started to evoke comments from cashiers ... "Wow, that's an old 20...." Yet a grocery store in one location in town swipes even the NEW $10 bills with their magic pen. Different levels of observation (and fraud, I guess).

If you want to really befuddle the teen-cashier at Taco Bell, pay your bill with Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, or even Sacagawea 'gold' dollars.

Cashier 'training' these days leaves much to be desired. Paying for anything that costs more than $100 with CASH seems to arouse suspicion...

John MooreMay 30, 2007 1:30 PM

Don't they train clerks to look for the security features on and within the currency? The government has gone to enormous trouble to legitimize its currency after the Superbills episode, and they pushed $2 bills on us many years ago. What would have happened if he'd paid in Susan B. Anthony coins or those Sacagawea Golden Dollar coins?

RSaundersMay 30, 2007 1:33 PM

@ Steve,
This piece ran in the Baltimore Sun, a serious paper in Maryland March 8, 2005. I don't think it lacks authenticity. Even Snopes references it.

MEPMay 30, 2007 2:00 PM

@John Moore

Retailers don't train their cashiers to recognize false currency at all. I've worked recently as a cashier at Target. They didn't even show us pictures of real currency or ask us if we knew what kind of bills/coins were in circulation. They just assume that people know what money looks like.

One of our cashiers correctly identified a phony $100 bill, and a manager accepted it after the customer complained (he wasn't accepting the bill to defuse a possibly dangerous situation which would be understandable since every check lane has cameras -- he actually believed it was a real bill and overuled the cashier). The AP team was furious with him, but little good that does after the fact.

another bruceMay 30, 2007 2:01 PM

the police spokesman was just being a corporate suckup. heaven forfend that anybody should sue over an honest misunderstanding like this. the corporations have become the overlords of the state, and should one of their employees exercise state authority against you and arrange for you to be chained to a pole for a few hours, well, that's just your role in the great war on terror.

Maggie LeberMay 30, 2007 2:39 PM

Indeed, counterfeiting *isn't* even a little like terrorism.

Tendering real US currency isn't even a little like counterfeiting.

Not knowing what US currency looks like isn't even a little like cashiering.

Blaming a false arrest in 2005 on 9/11 isn't even a little like police work.

Dredging up a 2005 story in 2007 isn't even a little like news.


NostromoMay 30, 2007 3:01 PM

@Kevin Davidson:
"A nearby Best Buy security guard choked a shoplifter to death back in 1996."
Well, at least the victim was a criminal, unlike in the current case where the victim was just trying to buy something with genuine US currency.

Steve BarbedWireKissMay 30, 2007 3:26 PM

"Counterfeiting is not terrorism; it isn't even a little bit like terrorism."

A market-based economy, such as the US, relies on its currency to make sure that transactions can happen. Without the currency, then you would have to implement another form of "reasonable exchange".

The US has a currency system where you take as given that each note of currency 'holds' the value for exchange which is given on the note; so, a one dollar note buys you one dollar's worth of things. I believe that is known as 'fiat currency'.

If a story was to get around that, due to counterfeiting, a large number of dollar bills in circulation were fake and as such were not worth the paper they were printed on, could it not feasibly destabilise that currency as the "faith" that people put into the currency no longer exists? What happens then if people start playing the "What if...?" game and not trusting notes of other value such as $10 "just in case"?

If such a scenario were to occur you could effectively destabilise the economy and the society. Without currency trade would become very difficult; it would almost certainly become localised, with people only dealing with others that they knew personally. Trading between separate states, maybe even separate cities in the same state could become non-existent.

Without that element of trust in the currency, the government would be left in a very difficult position. It could not pay its employees, as the employees may not trust the money they are being given. The value of its currency could become zero on international markets as the "fear factor" hits and trust in the government to ensure the value of its currency dropped. You would have feasibly rendered that government powerless. Would that not be a major goal for a terrorist?

Of course, it would require a huge number of fake notes to be released into the trading environment for the effect of the fake money to actually be noticeable. However the effect of a small number of fake notes could be magnified by the media reporting on the few, small cases and then some form of "mass panic" setting in with John Doe.

A recent change to bank notes here in the UK shows that the UK treasury considers this to be a problem. £5 notes have had a "holographic" emblem on them for a number of years, and there are now changes happening to the £20 note which have been made specifically to make counterfeiting them much harder.

FPMay 30, 2007 3:34 PM

What a coincidence. I had to visit my bank today for other reasons, and decided to pick up a couple $2 dollar bills. They just don't exist in normal circulation. I didn't even know that they existed before stumbling over them in Wikipedia. Today was the first time that I held one in my hands.

Still, if I had ever received one in change, I wouldn't have thought of them as counterfeit. They look real (not that I would be able to tell), and I would have thought it pretty unlikely to counterfeit them. Anyone who tried paying a larger bill with a stack of $2 bills invites certain scepticism (does "hinky" apply?), and using them one at a time is pretty pointless for the counterfeiter.

And certainly in any larger store, you would expect to have someone who at least knows that $2 bills exist.

Similar with dollar coins. They're less rare than $2 bills, but you won't ever receive them in change, other than from a USPS vending machine.

And that is despite the annoyance of having to feed parking meters with a roll of quarters rather than two dollar coins, because that is the only denomination that they accept.

AndrewMay 30, 2007 3:43 PM

About a decade ago, I was nearly hooked up by San Diego PD for attempting to spend a $2 bill to buy food at a Taco Bell in La Jolla, CA.

The resolution was when I insisted that the officer call his sergeant. The sergeant, bless his heart, resolved the issue by paying for my food with a $2 bill from his wallet.

Bruce SchneierMay 30, 2007 3:52 PM

I didn't even notice that this story was two years old. I saw the current date on the website, and completely missed the 2005 byline date.

Fred PMay 30, 2007 4:01 PM

@Steve BarbedWireKiss-

I'm a bit confused by part of your premise; there are tens of millions of counterfeit dollars removed from circulation each year. Roughly 1/10,000 - 1/5,000 of U.S. bills are counterfeit.

SteveMay 30, 2007 4:15 PM

Nothing in the article compares counterfeiting to terrorism. Nothing in the quote that you find surreal compares counterfeiting to terrorism. The quoted person simply used 9/11 as a reference date.

Baltimore ResidentMay 30, 2007 4:36 PM

@Fred P
I think the premise "Counterfeiting Is not Terrorism" is well demonstrated by your point. Counterfeiting, as currently practiced, is not an attempt to disrupt the government of the US. It's a criminal enterprise, on the more professional end of the spectrum. The folks that make and pass counterfeit money are doing it to make a living. They don't do things to attract attention, like use $2 bills. They try to maximize the return on the time taken and exposure to law enforcement. It is a routine crime, handled pretty well by a department at the Secret Service.

Terrorists try to attract attention, that's how they spread "terror". They don't seem to be able to make a living at it, most of them have some sort of agenda motivating their work. We don't seem to catch them in any sort of routine way.

"Counterfeiting Is not Terrorism" seems pretty clear. It's just a problem when we get police that are so stupid they are unable to assess the situation correctly. The hyper-vigilance they seem to take as a result of very unlikely terrorist actions is impacting their ability to do a good job in a routine situation (commercial dispute). While the Best Buy folks may have shown a lack of education about US currency, that's where one would hope the Policeman would defuse the situation rather than enrage it. The Best Buy cashier is working for Best Buy, so that limits their potential excellence, but the police are working for me, the taxpayer, and that does hold them to a higher standard.

Andre LePlumeMay 30, 2007 4:52 PM

Counterfeiting is not terrorism. However, some counterfeiting may be an approach taken by state-level adversaries of the US.

Google 'superdollar' for details.

Clearly, Joe Blow trying to spend a $2 bill he printed in his basement isn't anywhere near the same (as if anyone would fake bills that are suspicious even when legitimate!).

SkippernMay 30, 2007 5:10 PM

If this continues, shoplifting is soon terrorism. What about driving under influence or speeding? Might be terrorism that aswell

Michael AshMay 30, 2007 7:24 PM

@Nostromo

"Well, at least the victim was a criminal, unlike in the current case where the victim was just trying to buy something with genuine US currency."

Are you insane? Murdering a shoplifter is vastly worse than detaining an honest citizen for a couple of hours due to confusion over currency.

Perhaps I am abnormal in believing that committing a minor crime does not justify an extreme punishment, but I would like to believe that I am not.

DV Henkel-WallaceMay 30, 2007 7:59 PM

Counterfeiting is often used as a tool of war. In WWII in Europe both sides printed up bundles of the other guy's currency for agents to use, and I believe there was an attempt in to try to destabilize one side, but I can't remember.

In the pacific there was a different approach: the Japanese issued occupation scrip and made the old stuff illegal to posess. And the US withdrew US currency from Hawaii (not then a state anyway) and issued special scrip too, though I don't remember exactly what they were trying to accomplish.

In all these cases the important point is that IT WAS USELESS. The only value in counterfeiting might have been for the agents, but they would have been better served by using real, used, crumpled captured notes from the other side, which is probably what happened.

Still, a vigourous and public effort to maintain the integrity of specie, regardless of how effective, _is_ important. Sort of like when Giuliani decided that cleaning up graffiti would make new york feel less like a criminal place. Did it work? Who knows.

Here's a funny case: When the US changed the $100 design a few years ago there was panic in Russia where US currency was in circulation (perhaps it still is) -- people were afraid that their horded notes would no longer be "legal tender". The funny thing is, though the US (unlike almost every other country with its specie) has never invalidated a federal note, if nobody in Russia were willing to risk an old note, than it would effectively have become invalid for them. Which would have been a cool arbitrage opportunity for someone with a wad of cash and a newspaper. But instead the feds made a big publicity campaign that "the old notes are still good"

Anyway, in a sense, counterfeiting _is_ a tool of terrorism. However it's more effort than, but just as effective as, attacking the WTC buildings with a squirt gun.

antibozoMay 30, 2007 8:47 PM

As a Frank Zappa fan, I think a forty dollar bill would have been more interesting.

bzelbobMay 30, 2007 10:07 PM

Bruce, great story. Deserves to be reposted.

Thank god the clerk at best buy wasn't paid with something like a real silver Liberty Dollar! That would have really set everybody off!

http://www.libertydollar.org

ReasonableMay 30, 2007 10:30 PM

@DV

'>> Counterfeiting is often used as a tool of war

True.

>>In all these cases the important point is that IT WAS USELESS
How do you support this unlikely statement? I would say it is highly effective. The fact the mutual use of this weapon almost cancels out does not mean it is not effective. Following the same (defective) reason, rebounds are not useful in basketball - both teams try for them, and usually end-game scores are tied.

Actually, in an a-symmetric warfare situation, I'd think counterfeiting would be quite effective. The US cannot retaliate by counterfeiting OsamaDollars.

Bruce SchneierMay 31, 2007 12:39 AM

"I'm a bit confused by part of your premise; there are tens of millions of counterfeit dollars removed from circulation each year. Roughly 1/10,000 - 1/5,000 of U.S. bills are counterfeit."

Aren't the great majority of those in circulation outside the U.S.?

AnonymousMay 31, 2007 2:49 AM

A German porn studio once printed advertisements in the form of "300 Euro" and "600 Euro" banknotes, with pictures of topless women and bare-chested men on them, respectively. The notes had the studio's URL and the EU stars were in the shape of a heart, not in a circle. I think I read somewhere that someone did try to pay their shopping with them, and the cashier didn't notice anything wrong.

supersnailMay 31, 2007 2:52 AM

" the "faith" that people put into the currency no longer exists? "

Real dollars do really exist -- there is are warehouses full of them ib Biejing, not many left in the USA though.

yitz..May 31, 2007 3:57 AM

I recall reading that terrorists in the middle east partially fund terror through counterfeiting american money.

I don't know if it's true..
but your statement that counterfeiting isn't even related would be wrong if it was .

KristineMay 31, 2007 6:12 AM

@Michael:
"Are you insane? Murdering a shoplifter is vastly worse than detaining an honest citizen for a couple of hours due to confusion over currency.

Perhaps I am abnormal in believing that committing a minor crime does not justify an extreme punishment, but I would like to believe that I am not."

You are not. I would like to add that any punishment must not be done by some security guard, but by the state. After a fair trial.

Kristine

RobertMay 31, 2007 7:22 AM

Many years ago, when I was about 10 yrs old, I paid for some things at a drugstore and used a 5 dollar "Silver Certificate" bill. I didn't even know it was one of these special bills. The clerk accused me of passing fake money and called the sherriff. The deputy had some brains and told the clerk that it was real. Of course, normal human nature took over and the clerk refused to believe he could possibly be wrong and he still refused to take the bill. At least I didn't get arrested!

DV Henkel-WallaceMay 31, 2007 7:48 AM

Mr. Reasonable,

The reasons I say useless are:

- There's no evidence of either side's economy being destabilised due to the counterfeit currency. Destruction of manpower and infrastrure presumably _did_ have that effect (though there's debate even about that!) but counterfeiting currency? Sorry, no.

- There's no evidence that eliminating the old currency helped maintain Japanese control except as a minor part of an overall propaganda / cultural stabilisation effort.

- Some counterfeiting is useful for funding your agents (cf also yitz's comments) but as the referenced article even demonstrates, passing large amounts of new-looking notes is also suspicous.

By the way counterfeiting as a skill can be valuable in making false documents, but that's an effect-in-the-small not an effect-in-the-large.

amsMay 31, 2007 9:26 AM

The mention of the September 11th attack wasn't meant to be a comparison to terrorism, it was meant to make people stop thinking. There are a bunch of phrases that are used this way, but "in the post-9/11 world" and "to protect the children" are two of the more common ones in current use. It used to be possible to use references to communism this way.

DavidMay 31, 2007 9:56 AM

I few years ago there was an article in Canadian Business about a chap who ran a major C$ counterfiting operation. Eventually forcing changes to the $100 bill. Several interesting points were made:

1. His first attempts were terrible, bad photocopies of $20's (as I recall) but people took them anyway!!
2. His motivation for improvement was not just money but not getting caught.
3. He got caught in the normal way. Spending way beyond his visible means.
4. When caught, he had broken down the bills into 10 or 11 areas of interest. The digital images he used to support these areas filled 7 CD's.

And people wonder why we have problems with fake bank machines!

Fred PMay 31, 2007 10:00 AM

@Bruce Schneier :
"About 60 percent of the counterfeit notes detected being passed in
the U.S. in fiscal year 2002 originated outside the U.S... The $100 is the most commonly counterfeited note abroad, while the
$20 note is the most commonly counterfeited domestically." - 13 May 2003
Fact Sheet: U.S. Secret Service on Currency Protection

http://www.iwar.org.uk/news-archive/2003/05-13-3.htm

aeschylusMay 31, 2007 12:41 PM

"Wow. What kind of idiot doesn't recognise their own country's currency?"

Maybe the same kind that doesn't know that "their" doesn't agree in number with "idiot". :^)

Ed T.May 31, 2007 1:03 PM

I actually tried paying for something with Sacagawea dollar coin (actually, two of them) and the clerk called the local police, claiming I was trying to pass fake money. The cop advised her that these coins were in fact valid, but then turned around and told me I had to leave the premises immediately, or face arrest for "criminal tresspass".

I have never returned to that establishment.

~EdT.

JanetMay 31, 2007 2:26 PM

Way back in the 80s when I was a cashier at a local department store, a woman paid for her purchase with $2 bills, also as some sort of protest. I just said ok and took the money!

I don't understand why people think this is a useful way to protest anything. No one saw the money except me, the lowly cashier, and the people in the cash office, who were also pretty lowly. It's not like we sent a report to the manager of the store saying how many $2 bills we took in. They just disappeared off to the bank.

antibozoMay 31, 2007 3:09 PM

Janet> I don't understand why people think this is a useful way to protest anything.

Well, it seems to have made an impression on you, anyway.

AlexMay 31, 2007 3:51 PM

Could anyone explain to non-USians what is so special about the $2 bills and other special currency form mentioned?

AlexMay 31, 2007 3:51 PM

Could anyone explain to non-USians what is so special about the $2 bills and other special currency form mentioned?

mikeMay 31, 2007 4:38 PM

"Could anyone explain to non-USians what is so special about the $2 bills and other special currency form mentioned?"

Not much special really. The only notable thing is that the $2 bill is probably the least used current U.S. currency. It's been around pretty much since the mid 1800's though. I think the only notable thing here is ignorance and abuse of authority. IMO, He shouldn't have let Best Buy detain him and both Best Buy an the police should probably have been sued for their behavior. (and I dislike the litigious nature of U.S. society. But I'm not sure what other option is viable here, other than not shopping at Best Buy, which doesn't stop the police from misbehaving )

For some amusing stories though, look at:
http://www.snopes.com/business/info/tacobell.asp

susan-bMay 31, 2007 5:56 PM

Some companies mail out $2 bills if you do something, e.g. take a survey. I suspect a lot of these end up as tips at restaurants, since that's the easiest, no-fuss way of getting rid of uncommonly used money.

Sacagaweas are unknown? Try Susan B Anthony dollars. Seems to me we're just being silly in this "US notes and coins are perpetually valid for their face value" business. Is it really helping to prop up the dollar? It it saving us that much money to avoid having to print replacements every time the note changes?

(Are silver certificates still worth the stated value in silver, or has the silver redemption been renounced? i.e. are they worth multiples of their face value?)

Wyle_EMay 31, 2007 8:36 PM

The $2 bill used to be fairly common, but then some big-city political machines started bribing voters with them. Soon, possession of a deuce after an election was considered prima facie evidence of having sold ones vote. Before long, the $2 bill was considered bad luck, and the Treasury stopped issuing it. Decades later, some Treasury bean counter pointed out how much money the government could save by printing fewer $1 bills if people would just accept a new $2 bill. Most people didn't want to be bothered, especially retail merchants who didn't have a slot for the new bill in their cash registers, so the $2 bill dropped out of circulation, just like the too-much-like-a-quarter Susan B. Anthony dollar and the "Looks like brass; gotta be fake!" Sacagawea dollar.

billswiftJune 1, 2007 2:17 AM

About the $2 bill: I don't know about the early history, but they were not in circulation in the 60s or early 70s. The current $2 bills were first issued during the Bicentennial in 1976, hence the Signing of the Declaration on the reverse. I didn't even know they were still being printed until I got one a couple of years ago dated 1995.

AnonymousJune 1, 2007 3:10 AM

@EdT:
So your "criminal trespass" consisted of all of trying to use legal, but scarce, currency? Does this mean cops can invent new laws on the spot, or just that "in this post-9/11" world anyone doing anything unusual has to be a criminal?

FrancesJune 1, 2007 2:52 PM

I have always heard that US$2 bills were much used at race tracks and thus considered somewhat disreputable.

We Canadians always had $2 bills and they were well used and well accepted. Now we have $1 and $2 coins, called respectively loonies and toonies.

Loonies because the first issue had a loon (that's a water bird) on one side and toonies are 2 loonies. I know, weird.

I like them because they are so useful in this coin operated world but they're heavy to carry around.

JanetJune 3, 2007 10:15 AM

>Well, it seems to have made an impression on you, anyway.

You're right! Except at this point I don't remember what she was protesting, just the $2 bills.

It's like those TV ads that are cool and memorable but you have no idea what they are selling.

JaySeptember 29, 2007 4:22 PM

Times being hard for me, I raided my old bill collection for a 1934 20 dollar bill. The foreign clerk at a 7-11 wouldn't accept it stating it wouldn't go into his safe. He agreed it was a real bill. I didn't push the printed "legal tender for all debts public and private" aspect but was angry and embarrassed. Another store gladly accepted it.

Jagadeesh VenugopalOctober 1, 2007 6:08 PM

All manners of idiocy are now acceptable in a post 9/11 world. Some examples:

I routinely get asked for my driver's license at the neighborhood home depot.

When I drive to TF Green Airport in Providence, RI there is a cop car with the cop sitting inside it at the entrance to the terminal. Not sure what purpose that will serve other than to advertise his presence. Clearly the cop will not have time to react if anyone tries anything untoward.

When I used to drive under the Prudential tunnel in Boston, there would be a cop car with signals flashing. Now if a person had nefarious intentions, clearly they would not advise the cop of their intentions?

For a certain period of time, the Prudential building in Boston used to check in car trunks. Memo to would be bad guys: please hide all your stuff in the trunk so we can see it clearly.

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