They target small businesses, people at garage sales and those trying to sell goods through services like Craigslist.
They operate in Oklahoma City and in cities and towns across the state.
They are currency counterfeiters, and the fake bills they pass are more common than most would think, authorities said.
The most recent example was announced Friday in Lawton, where authorities said they are investigating a growing string of counterfeit cases.
“We have seen an increase in the amount of counterfeit money being passed at local business in the last few months,” Lawton police Capt. Craig Akard said. “These crimes are happening all over Lawton, mostly at convenience stores and the occasional fast food restaurants.”
Counterfeit bills most often are ferreted out at banks when those stores and restaurants try to deposit them, not realizing they are fakes. When banks detect such bills, they typically notify the U.S. Secret Service.
Adrian Andrews, special agent in charge of the Secret Service in Oklahoma, said Friday that about $5,000 in counterfeit money is discovered in Oklahoma City every week, and counterfeiters are often using websites like Craigslist to pass off their money.
Andrews said the use of counterfeit bills is relatively common across the state, and there are several things people can do to make sure they don’t end up with the worthless and illegal pieces of paper. He said most of the money they receive each week comes from situations where small businesses and people dealing with cash unknowingly accept counterfeited money.
When those people and businesses try to deposit the money in a bank, it is usually detected and turned over to the Secret Service or local police.
“Banks are very good at spotting fake bills because they deal with them all the time,” Andrews said.
It’s sometimes hard for ordinary people and businesses to spot the fakes because they just don’t know what to look for, Andrews said.
People should be especially wary when doing business person to person at a garage sale or on Craigslist, because that is one of the most common ways people pass fakes, Andrews said.
And when people do end up with fake bills, they’re pretty much out of luck. The government will not exchange counterfeit bills for actual money.
Andrews said people who spend counterfeits unknowingly don’t face any kind of punishment, but if you find yourself with fake bills, you should turn the money in to authorities.
“If you find you have a counterfeit note, it is against the law to knowingly pass it off,” Andrews said.
In Lawton, police said they don’t know whether any of the people suspected in their investigation passed fake bills unknowingly.
Akard said detectives are looking for several people, including a white man in his 30s with a goatee and a white woman in her 30s who were seen using the fake money at various locations.
A white or Hispanic heavy-set man driving a black car that may be a Dodge Charger was seen in one case, police report.
Also, a white, heavy-set woman and a black man have been seen driving a maroon four-door car with a sunroof.
Police do not know whether any of those seen at stores are connected to one another.
The counterfeit bills being passed are mostly $20 bills, but police have seen a few $100 bills, a $5 bill and a $10 bill, Akard said.
Andrews said the Secret Service is not yet working with Lawton police, but they work similar cases across the state on a regular basis.
How to spot a fake
Andrews said the counterfeit-detecting pens most businesses use don’t work well, and the best way to spot a fake is to check for three security measures.
If you hold a bill up to the light, there should be a water mark on the right side showing the person whose face is on the bill. On the left side, there is a security strip that runs vertical on the bill that will say how much the bill is worth.
Another security measure on the bills is the color-changing ink on the bottom right side. When you look at the bill straight on, the number in that corner should look copper. When you tilt the bill in any direction, it will turn green.
Andrews said the best way to make sure you don’t get fooled is to just be aware.
“If it raises your suspicion, it probably isn’t right,” he said.
Staff Writer Robert Medley