Transcript of Von Holt, Part 4
Note: Transcripts have been edited for readability and are not word-for-word reflections of the audio sections.
Special Agent Chris Von Holt: My squad investigates counterfeit money. There's a lot that comes through my desk everyday and it's all cataloged by the administrative people who work for me. We break it up into groups of various manufacturing methods -- a lot of the counterfeit money was manufactured by offset printing presses -- in, generally speaking, large batches.
That was until a few years ago with the advent of ink jet printers, and really good color copiers and scanners. Now a lot of the money is produced by this way. Sometimes it's taken off the Internet: you'll take images from the Internet, download those onto your computer, use Adobe Photoshop (or another program), and touch up these images. If you've got a good printer, you can print them out and you've got a fair quality counterfeit bill. If you cut a bill up, or wrinkle it up, and try to spend it at a 7-11 or a dark bar, a lot of the money is spent that way.
Mark "The Red" Harlan:A lot of people are familiar with the new currency that's out now -- the larger pictures, the watermarking -- how are those bills doing in the counterfeiting world? Are they providing the kind of support that you were hoping for?
CVH:Well, they're being counterfeited. If the people would look at the security features on those new bills, and just spent a little bit of time looking at them when they accept them from their customers, those security features would help a lot. We're just finding that people aren't taking the time to look. If they looked at the color-shifting ink in the bottom right hand corner, the watermark on the right hand side (which is just a smaller picture of the portrait), the thread on the left hand side, and just the overall printing quality, people would find that they can differentiate between genuine and counterfeit pretty readily.
RED:I noticed on one of your counterfeits a watermark that's not really a watermark. What are they doing there? What's the trick?
CVH:Some of the more sophisticated people that are printing the newer bills are actually printing the watermark on the paper, so it's not actually a watermark -- it's a printed image of Franklin on a $100 bill.
RED:And they're printing it in grey, or something like that?
CVH:Yeah, in a light grey so if you hold it up, and you're not really familiar with what a watermark looks like, it gives the appearance of a watermark.
RED:I see, but that particular bill I was looking at didn't have the thread. Is that common to not see the threads running through?
CVH:You get a whole mixture. People will put the watermark in, but not the thread, they'll try to duplicate the color-shifting ink and not put in the watermark or the thread. It just depends on how much work you want to put in to what you produce.
RED:Is the plan to move the new style bills all the way through the currency? Will they move it all the way down to the $1?
CVH:I don't think they're going to do $1's -- at least not in the near future -- they are going to do $5's and $10's eventually. But they're really concentrating on getting the $100's, $50's and $20's into circulation, because those are the bills that are most counterfeited. Actually, $20's and $100's are the most counterfeited. $20's because they are so prevalent -- everybody's got a pocketful of $20's -- and $100's because of the profit margin. If you spend a $100 bill and you buy a pack of cigarettes, obviously you're making a lot more in genuine change than if you spent a $20 bill.
RED:Have you ever seen a really high quality counterfeit $1?
CVH:No, because it doesn't really make any sense do that, to put that much effort into it. There's no profit in it. Most $1's that are counterfeited are very low quality, are just reproduced on Xerox machines and put into coin changers at a car wash.
RED:What's the cheesiest bill you've ever seen?
CVH:I don't know if I can think of one right off the top of my head, you get a few "novelty notes" where they kind of look like a $100 bill, but they've got a picture of some celebrity, as opposed to the picture of Franklin. People make those, generally speaking, as a joke and occasionally one will get passed and come into circulation, and I'll find it here.
RED:Are there any areas that are known for being hotbeds of counterfeiting? In other words, if I work in Des Moines I'm more likely to be getting counterfeit money there than I am working in San Jose?
CVH:Actually the bigger the city, the more activity you've got. Generally speaking, the biggest offices for counterfeiting for us are New York, Los Angeles and Miami. San Francisco is probably one step below those because of the population, of course. There's a large population in those areas, such a large criminal population, and such a large drug trade. San Francisco has a fairly large drug trade as well.
Counterfeit money and drugs seem to run hand-in-hand. There aren't too many places you can buy something with a lot of cash and the person you are buying from isn't going to look at your money. That's different if it's in a dark parking lot at 4:00 in the morning and he's in a big hurry to give you drugs and get out of town with your money. So that's where a lot of counterfeit money is initially passed and then it filters down to the general public. Some people spend it knowingly, and other people spend it unknowingly, and it's up to us to sort out who's got the criminal intent and eventually prosecute them.
RED:But technically drugs per se are not part of the Secret Service charter, right?
CVH:No. We are not mandated to investigate drug trafficking. It just so happens that lot of times people who are involved in the drug trade are also involved in counterfeit currency.
RED:Right. So does that mean that you'll oftentimes have some sort of shadow, or counterpart, over in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that's going along with you as you go through these different assignments?
CVH:Not so much the FBI. More often the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the local drug task forces -- we work a lot with them. ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), because if you've got counterfeit money, quite often you want a way to protect it. If you're a major distributor of counterfeit money, you may have a weapon. So we work a lot with them as well.
RED:The Secret Service isn't hiring people that were counterfeiters to help catch counterfeiters ...
RED:... so how do you get schooled in counterfeiting, how do they teach you, and how extensive is that course work? Or is it more a case of, "Here, you sit over here with Bubba, he's our counterfeiting guy, he'll show you how it works"?
CVH:Well, it's somewhat a combination of both. It is taught extensively at our training facility in Washington DC. We hire a lot of technical people that work for our counterfeit division back in DC that coordinate a lot of the technical cases. We have a forensic services division in Washington DC, they do a lot analysis of fingerprinting and counterfeit notes. We also have instruction at the Academy, and when new agents come back from there, and are here for their first year or so, they probably wouldn't start in the Counterfeiting Squad, more likely the Fraud Squad. There's a mentoring system here where they'll be advised by the senior agents and the supervisory staff of what to do, how to do it and we proceed that way.
RED:What's your advice to someone, like a normal clerk, if they get a counterfeit bill? Say I work at 7-11, someone comes in, buys a Slurpee and gives me a counterfeit $20. What am I supposed to do?
CVH:Well, if you already had the ability to detect it -- you know at that time it's counterfeit -- what we'd like you to do is keep it, and not give it back to the individual. On the other hand, if he demands it back, and you're going to get into a fistfight over it, give it back to him. We're not asking anyone to be a junior police officer, or get themselves hurt. If you could get a good description of the person as he's leaving the store, maybe even poke your head outside and get the license plate of the car he's driving, that would be helpful. You could call us, or you could call the local police department, and report it to them. They, generally speaking, will send an officer out to talk to you, file a written report, and they will forward a copy of that report to us.