Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Fistful of Phonies: Detecting Fake Dollars

Stacked in hundred dollar bills, a million dollars covers no more than a small tabletop, or it fits snugly into a briefcase. The cool million displayed last week at a press conference of the former KGB might have been a miser's dream, except that it was all counterfeit. Fake dollars are a growing problem in Moscow as the ruble's popularity plummets, officials at the Security Ministry say.

Due to the risk of being cheated, Muscovites have their own ways of recognizing authentic dollars. "I like to put my hands over the money and feel -- it has to be very bumpy", says Lyudmila Kulayeva, a cashier at a hard-currency store.

Inside the store, which sells televisions, refrigerators and other goods, Kulayeva keeps a magnifying glass and a book with pictures of different world currencies. A metallic strip on the side of $100 bills printed after 1990 is another key identification mark, she says.

"There were two cases when someone brought in counterfeit dollars", she recalls. "They didn't say anything; they took the money and left".

On the Arbat, the vendors rely more on instinct, than books or magnifying glasses to determine the authenticity of the money they get. "We look at the person that's giving it to determine what kind of person they are", said a man who identified himself as Yevgeny Nikolayevich.

Still, the street vendor can name a series of criteria for telling real from fake dollars, including the feel of the jacket worn by Jackson on a $20 bill, and the placement of the eye when the bill is evenly folded. Vendors say those with connections can buy fake dollars on the Arbat at attractive prices: a fake $100 bill, for example, costs 50 real dollars.

The most common excuse from those who try to pass off counterfeits is feigned ignorance, according to a money changer in Dom Knigi, the big bookstore on Novy Arbat. "They say 'Sorry, a store gave it to me, I didn't know it was false'", said the man, who requested anonymity.

A favorite place to spend counterfeit dollars is at the casino, according to Roland Pollak, food and beverage manager at the Alexander Blok, a hotel and casino.

A special electronic machine quickly authenticates dollars, Pollak says. But down in the restaurant, a cashier, Tatyana Benyash, acts as an early warning detector. "We look very attentively at money from 1988", she says. "Many counterfeit notes from that year have arrived on our market".

Unlike many Moscow establishments, the Alexander Blok will confiscate counterfeit notes and send them on to the Russian Central Bank.

Most local stores and vendors just send counterfeit spenders away, giving them a chance to try to pass off the fake bills somewhere else.