Police give real talk on fake money, credit card scams

Not even the chief of police is safe from credit card fraud.

Last week, Greenwich Chief of Police James Heavey told an audience of slightly more than two dozen people gathered at a forum on identity theft and retail fraud that his credit card information was stolen and used by criminals. It happened only weeks after he became chief when he took several retired officers to eat at a now-closed establishment. He didn’t name the business and he said that he had no idea anything was wrong at first.

But, on the Friday following his outing with the retired officers, his bank called him to ask if he was trying to buy a large screen television at a Paramus, N.J., mall and if he had purchased $500 of power tools at Home Depot, to which he quickly replied no.

“They didn’t know who they were messing with,” he joked about the criminals.

He didn’t go into details about the investigation other than to say it was handled by Det. Mark Solomon, one of the two featured speakers at the forum. Det. Solomon was joined by Senior Special Agent Derek Dunn of the U.S. Secret Service and the Financial Crimes Task Force, of which Det. Solomon is also a member.

The event was sponsored by the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce, the Greenwich Police Department and the Connecticut Financial Crimes Task Force. It was held at police headquarters on Wednesday, July 31, to educate people about the dangers of credit card fraud and related scams and how both individuals and businesses can prevent it.

Det. Solomon said a common way for credit card fraud to occur is for an employee at a restaurant or another business to take a credit card and swipe it through a card reader the employee secreted in a pocket. Then the employee will swipe the card legitimately for the customer’s bill.

Thieves will take the customer’s information and place it on a card, most often a gift card. Solomon said criminals will often steal gift cards, even ones that are not activated because stolen information can be loaded on to them. The fact that they steal the blank gift cards in bulk from a business often surprises people who believe the thieves were stupid in doing so.

In fact, it’s just the opposite, Det. Solomon said.

“There are different organizations that will counterfeit a real looking, authentic looking credit card but the easiest thing in the world is to go into Stop & Shop and see 120 cards hanging on a rack, take them, put them in a jacket and walk out,” he said. “They don’t want that card to be activated. They are looking for a device they can put that stolen data on to.”

Even with all of the high tech means that criminals use to commit frauds that cost businesses and individuals thousands and even millions of dollars, Det. Solomon cautioned his audience that one of the biggest threats to businesses are shoplifters.

Shoplifters range from individuals to organized groups that may have three or four people working together to steal merchandise, he said. Shoplifting is a crime that involves all demographic groups.

“We don’t profile people, we profile the activity,” Det. Solomon said. “I have shoplifters that were white, black, Hispanic, Asian, from 12-years-old to 78-years-old. Anybody is capable of committing a theft.”

Agent Dunn focused his presentation on counterfeit money and warned his audience that holding counterfeit money is a criminal activity.

“It is illegal to be just in possession of it. If you get caught with a counterfeit $100 bill and you go into a bank to deposit it and the bank teller determines the note to be counterfeit then you are out of the money. It is like a hot potato, whoever gets caught with it last is out,” Agent Dunn said.

Tens of thousands of dollars of counterfeit money is flowing through the state, he said.

“We get on average about $10,000 a week in our office,” he said. “You are looking at about 40 to $50,000 per month and that is just what is seized. There is a whole heck of a lot more out there,” he said.

While thousands of dollars in counterfeit money is circulating through the state, he said only about one in 10,000 bills printed is counterfeit.

Most of the counterfeiting is done in foreign countries, as many European countries will still accept $100 bills, Agent Dunn said. As well, many other countries are “dollarizing” — that is adopting American currency as their currency — and are also plagued by counterfeit money.

Counterfeiters constantly try to find ways to create phony currency including using good money to create a fake $100 bill. One practice is to take a legitimate $5 bill with the image of Abraham Lincoln on it, bleach the ink out of and then print a $100 with Benjamin Franklin on it.

To just about everyone the bill feels good and even looks good, but a closer inspection reveals there is something wrong, Agent Dunn said. Instead of the ghostly image of Benjamin Franklin in a watermark staring back at them, it is Lincoln’s image from the $5 bill.

“Hold it up to the light and if you see Abraham Lincoln smiling at you, you know you’ve got a counterfeit bill, a $5 bill that has been bleached,” Agent Dunn said.

Counterfeiters either use the traditional method of counterfeiting by using a printing press or do it digitally.

The first option is more complex as it requires access to a printing press and also skill in creating the burnt plates to create the original bill. The drawback is that every bill has the exact same serial number, Agent Dunn said.

Digital counterfeiting doesn’t have the quality of offset bills but it is quicker and easier to manufacture, he added.

“That’s what we find more and more these days, particularly with teenagers, but also with hardened criminals,” Agent Dunn said.

Those hardened criminals include members of South American drug cartels. But it’s not only individuals and criminals who produce counterfeit money; the rogue North Korean communist state is also a prime creator of counterfeit money, he said.

“They are pumping out counterfeit $100 bills,” he said, adding that this is happening allegedly from a location that has been identified by American authorities. He estimated that about 75% of counterfeit money is digitally produced. Most counterfeit money is either $20 or $100 bills, he said.

Agent Dunn compared counterfeiting to the illegal drug trade with the manufacturer acting as the first step in the process, creating phony money sometimes in the millions.

“He sells it in bulk to someone who in turn splits it up like they do with drugs and sells it to someone else. The person who walked into your store with counterfeit money most likely isn’t the person who manufactured it.”

Agent Dunn passed examples of counterfeit money to the audience, drawing some murmured comments from people who marveled at how good some of them were and how easy it would be to be duped.

One of those participants, Mary Beth Hoffman, said in her position at the bank she works at but declined to name she was already aware of many of the methods criminals try to use. Even she was surprised by the quality of the counterfeit money she saw.

“I’m not a teller so all the money looked pretty similar to me,” she said with a laugh.

She was also struck by how easy it is to have her personal information compromised including her credit cards.

“In restaurants I always let them take my card,” she said. “I will be much more cautious from now on.”

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