BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Counterfeit bills are costing businesses thousands of dollars per week, according to the Brevard County Sheriff's Office Economics Crimes Unit.
Agent Mike Thomas said the bills are being used at gas stations, groceries, big box stores and other businesses.
Thomas keeps stacks of the fake bills on his desk from cases all over Brevard County.
A local bar owner turned in a counterfeit $100 bill after he discovered it was fake at the close of business one night.
"A gentleman purchased a $5 beer, got $95 back in real money, and before the bartender realized it was a fake bill, he was gone," Thomas said.
Thomas said the Economic Crimes Unit will "follow the money" and track down who passed the bill originally using surveillance video, witness statements and license plate tags.
"Some of these bills will go to forensic unit to check for DNA, as well as fingerprinting, and that starts as our evidence chain," Thomas said.
Sometimes several people are involved in handling the counterfeit cash unknowingly, just by receiving the fake bills as change.
Thomas said it's critical for people to examine bills, especially large ones, for authenticity because you will lose the value of the money if it turns out it is counterfeit. Banks will not reimburse you.
"What I'm looking for is the visual clues, whether there's any discoloration in the paper," Thomas said.
There are several tell-tale signs to spot real money versus a fake bill.
Thomas said real bills have reflective seals and markings. Newer bills have a watermark printed inside the bill showing the president printed on the surface of the bill. The watermark can be seen by holding up the bill to the light.
Newer larger bills also have a paper strip embedded inside the bill that is also visible when holding it up to the light.
Real bills also have ridges printed on the jacket of the president. Rubbing your fingernail along the jacket will reveal the ridges.
Some businesses use counterfeit-checking pens that will turn a dark color if the paper is fake. Real bills are printed on linen-based paper.
Working with the U.S. Secret Service, the Brevard County Sheriff's Office Economic Crimes Unit has arrested several counterfeiters that were using inkjet printers to print fake bills, Thomas said.
Some will take fake cash used in Hollywood productions, known as "movie money," and erase markings that indicate it's fake.
Thomas said one suspect was printing large bills and used them to buy high-end vacuum cleaners at stores along Florida's east coast.
"He'd pay it with counterfeit money and then go up the road and now he has a receipt and do a return and gets real money back," Thomas said.
Thomas said the best way to spot counterfeit bills is to compare them side-by-side with real money so you can see the differences.
If you receive bills from a business that don't look or feel right, return it and ask for different bills, Thomas suggested.
Thomas said other areas of Central Florida, such as tourist areas, see more counterfeit cash because visitors from all of the world bring it in and filter it through local businesses.