Shoppers and cashiers, check your currency.
That’s the message the Hinesville Police Department is spreading as a number of area businesses have reported customers trying to make purchases with counterfeit bills, according to Detectives Division Lt. Susie Jackson.
“Anywhere you go, if you get change back, you may want to step aside and check it,” Jackson said. “I even look at the bills I get back from the bank to make sure.”
Since the beginning of the month, more than 15 incident reports have been filed involving counterfeit $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills.
“Naturally, when it happens this often, we’ll pass the information on to the Secret Service,” Jackson said. The Secret Service — not the U.S. Treasury Department — is the office that investigates counterfeiting on a federal level.
Savannah Field Office Special Agent David Johnson said his department has seen a nationwide uptick in the use of counterfeits but that the crime tends to happen in cycles.
“You can have a region get hit hard for a short time, and then it will go away or decrease on its own or an arrest is made,” he said. People passing counterfeits tend to travel between regions to avoid detection, and areas near interstates, such as Interstate 95, frequently are targeted.
“Obviously, one counterfeit note is one too many, especially for the person who ends up getting stuck with it,” Johnson added.
Unaware consumers who receive counterfeit bills often have to forfeit the notes without getting any compensation, Jackson said. “Once you walk away from the counter, you’re going to have a more difficult time making an argument to that store, bank or restaurant to say, ‘Hey, you gave me some counterfeit money.’”
The Secret Service works with local agencies to identify and shut down the operations of people who manufacture and pass counterfeit money, Johnson said.
Those who are found to knowingly create, use or distribute counterfeit bills will face stiff penalties, as the offenses are felonies, Jackson said.
But one of the problems with tracking offenders is that officers must be able to prove that a customer knows the bill is not genuine.
“If someone goes in a store and they have money on them and one out of five bills on them turns out to be counterfeit … and the person says, ‘Please do call the police,’ … in that case, that person most likely wouldn’t be charged,” Johnson said. “If someone is found in possession of, you know, five or 10 counterfeit notes at one time, it’s less likely that they innocently possessed it.”
According to the reports, most people carrying the bills say they are not aware that the bills are counterfeit, and they have reported receiving the notes from their banks, Walmart and other stores.
But in one Sept. 5 case, a man who tried to pass a counterfeit $10 bill at a restaurant left while employees were in the process of checking the bill, according to a police report.
The employee working the Burger King drive-through on E.G. Miles Parkway was unsure whether the bill was genuine, so she took it to her manager for confirmation, the report said. The manager verified that the bill was counterfeit.
When the manager and the employee returned to the window, the vehicle was gone. The employee reported to police that the man was driving a white GMC Yukon with a gold stripe on its side. The same man had been through the line the previous day and used a counterfeit $20 bill, which the same employee did not realize was fake until she counted the money in her cash drawer at the end of her shift, the report said.
A Burger King manager named Diane — who declined to give her last name, citing privacy concerns — said she first noticed counterfeit bills at the end of August.
Since then, people have tried to pass $130 in counterfeit bills at the restaurant, the manager added. About two weeks ago, the manager was counting money when she realized that one of the bills in her stack felt “funny, ” so she marked it with a counterfeit detection pen and the ink turned brown — an indication that it likely is not genuine.
The same day, the manager received a call from a bank representative, who informed her that there were two counterfeit $20 bills in the previous day’s deposit.
“I really felt bad,” she said, saying she was unaware that other stores had been targeted, too. “I was like, ‘Are we that gullible?’”
Now, the store has three markers at each register and each employee has been briefed on the protocol for detecting and handling suspicious bills.
“We’re watching them really hard,” she said. “It’s not going to pass through here again.”
Dug-Out Sports Bar and Grill on E.G. Miles reported multiple customers have attempted to pass counterfeit $50 bills, the reports said.
“The first thing I noticed with the money was the cut of the bill was uneven,” responding Officer Lyle Thurmond wrote in the first police report. “I also noticed there was no watermark on the bill.”
In the first incident, on Sept. 7, the woman who made the complaint told the officers that the customer who tried to use the bill was still in the restaurant.
Thurmond and another officer asked the man to step outside and questioned him about the bill.
The customer said he was unaware that the money was counterfeit and could not pinpoint where he got it, and he allowed the officers to go through his wallet, the report said. They did not find any other counterfeit notes.
False bills also have made their way to grocery and convenience stores on Highway 84.
The Flash Foods at 463 W. Oglethorpe Highway also reported multiple incidents.
On Sept. 6, a man reportedly purchased a $550 money order with a variety of small bills, but the clerk later noticed multiple counterfeit $20 bills were buried in the middle of the stack, the report said. The clerk tried to cancel the money order after realizing the bills were counterfeit.
As for the outlying areas of the county, Liberty County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Keith Moran said he has not seen any incident reports involving counterfeit currency within the past 10 days, which indicates the bills mainly are being passed within Hinesville city limits.