WASHINGTON — It was the most popular counterfeit $100 bill in circulation, and for more than a decade its makers were a mystery to the Secret Service.
Agents collected and analyzed the fake greenbacks, which first popped up in Israel in the late 1990s.
They were so good that they were often discovered only after they reached a bank or the Federal Reserve.
So when Secret Service agent Adam Gaab came across four of the fake $100s on May 17, 2012, shortly after they had been detected at a Loan Max in northern Virginia, he knew he had the rare chance to link a bill back to the person who passed it.
“It was the No. 1 note,” said Ed Lowery, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s criminal investigation division. “You aggressively run out leads on the No. 1 note.”
Cracking the case
The investigation evolved into a two-year international odyssey that culminated in the indictment last week of 13 Israelis and Americans of running one of the most successful counterfeiting operations in U.S. history. Hundreds of agents were involved by the time they executed raids and arrest warrants in five states in May and June that resulted in the capture of the suspects and seizure of $2.5 million in fake bills and a printing plant at a New Jersey warehouse, according to federal authorities.
The counterfeiting ring was responsible for producing at least $77 million in fake bills, mostly $100s, said Secret Service Director Julia Pierson.
“This has been a painful note for us,” Pierson said in an interview. When a bill’s so good that it’s not discovered until it’s in the banking system, that “separates the passing of the note to its detection. It allows these people to operate more anonymously.”
One sign of the ring’s sophistication, agents said, was the counterfeiters appeared close to mimicking the latest currency security features, including 3D ribbons.
An evolving crime
The Secret Service has been battling counterfeiting since 1865 and has watched it evolve from an art form practiced by master printers to amateurs scanning and printing bills with their home computers. In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the service recovered $157 million in fake bills.
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