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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Counterfeit Bills Fool Officials

ST. PETERSBURG - One of the more discouraging things an investigator with the St. Petersburg anti-economic crime unit may hear in the course of a day's work is something like this: "I have worked as an exchange booth cashier for six years, and sometimes the quality of the counterfeits is so good that I have no doubt they're real."

That cashier added, "We get a lot of counterfeit dollars at the moment." This is not an isolated incident - not when 723 counterfeit cases constitute one-tenth of all criminal investigations now taking place in Russia.

But how are these bills eluding experienced cashiers and the vaunted high-tech machines? As reported by the anti-economic crime unit, it's not that the circulation of high-quality funny money is going up that is the problem. It's that the market has been taken over by homegrown bills of erratic quality, produced by everything from color printers and pirated software programs to watercolor master painters with Xerox machines, anti-economic crime unit officers say.

Police and banks are therefore in a tailspin trying to figure out how - with today's technology - mere drawings are ending up in the cash drawers of exchange booths.

According to one officer at the anti-economic crime unit, who requested anonymity due of the nature of his work, the problem is not so much dollars but rubles, which take up 60 percent of the counterfeit market.

"One of the main reasons for this phenomenon is the free access to printing and Xerox machines," said the officer.

The number of phony bills in the economy at present is anyone's guess, and the anti-economic crime unit officer said that a review of counterfeit busts in recent years shows that the quantity of fakes is rarely consistent.

In 1995, for instance, the anti-economic crime unit withdrew 8,166 ruble notes of different denominations from circulation. The next year, that shot up to 39,470 notes. By 1997, the number had been cut to 16,277.

The anti-economic crime unit officer said the extreme jump in 1996 resulted from the bust of an international gang that tried to dump 50,000 fake rubles produced in Poland. The officer said he did not have figures on confiscations for more recent years.

Although that may seem like a lot, Ira Polikoff, a spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department, said at a press conference in St. Petersburg last month that one's chances of getting a phony U.S. bill were one in 10,000 - on the assumption that all anti-counterfeit technology is equal.

About 70 percent of $500 billion worth of U.S. bills in circulation are held outside the United States, Polikoff said. Most of them are in Russia in the form of $100 bills, a fact that makes U.S. cash vulnerable to counterfeiting.

Kevin Rodgers, a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service of the U.S. Treasury Department, said that about $3 million in fake currency had been taken off the Russian market between October 1999 and May 2000.

Once counterfeiters mint their wares, there are several tricks they use to convert it into real cash. The ultra-slick dollars - with magnetic threads, watermarks, offset printing and color-changing ink that pass muster at the ultraviolet machines at exchange points - are theoretically passed right back into the Russian economy.

According to an anti-economic crime unit official, such high-quality fakes are often made in Iran and Iraq and come into the country via Moscow's airports and Dagestan's ports.

Other counterfeiters, however, who have been churning out rubles instead, have a variety of easier ways of dumping their fakes. Often, they cruise cashiers at stores and exchange banks, trying to find the more flustered or inexperienced ones, said the anti-economic crime unit official. People under stress will rarely bother to make proper checks on mid-sized bills, he said.

Anti-economic crime unit representatives said the best way to avoid being the victim of counterfeiters is to do all your money changing at banks - otherwise, according to the Criminal Code, you may find yourself on the wrong side of the law.

Even unwittingly passing off a counterfeit bill means hours of unpleasant interrogation at the police station and most likely a trip to court. According to the anti-economic crime unit official, that is why numbers for counterfeit cases account for so many court cases.

If you are in doubt of a bill you are holding, you can give it to Sberbank, which will run a three-week check on it to determine its veracity, said spokeswoman Natalya Mevedyeva.

Despite the recent spate of computer-generated and hand-drawn rubles worming their way into the economy, Izvestia concluded on June 2 that counterfeiting is actually dropping off in the country.

Punishment for the crime is 15 years in prison. That beats the firing squad imposed by the Soviet powers, but even that beats Peter the Great's punishment of pouring molten tin down the throat of a convicted counterfeiter.

Those improvements notwithstanding, a three-week trip for your suspicious-looking money to Sberbank to check out its authenticity may not be a bad idea in comparison with 15 years in a labor camp.