They come in all qualities.
Some are crude. They have blurry borders or numbers. Or maybe the portrait is dull or the paper is either too thick or too thin. It doesn't feel right to the fingers.
Some, though, are sharp and crisp. They look real. They feel real. Maybe the serial number gives them away. Maybe it's the lack of tiny red and blue fibers embedded throughout the paper.
But those are things people hardly ever look for.
There is an influx of counterfeit bills being passed around Fort Wayne this year, many of which are spent at fast food restaurants, gas stations or during deals made in dimly lit parking lots.
As of the beginning of this month, Fort Wayne Police have taken 115 reports involving fake money so far this year. In all of 2011, police took 74 reports involving counterfeit bills.
And with technology allowing nearly anyone with access to a computer and printer the ability to print their own money, it's hard to say where it's all coming from.
"Compared to 10 years ago, it's a lot easier to make," said Det. David Ladig, who works in the city police department's financial crimes division.
"It's of better quality, for lack of a better term."
Combatting fake bills
The United States Secret Service was originally created in 1865 to suppress counterfeit money, and it remains one of the agency's main duties today.
In 2011, the agency recovered $154.7 million in passed and seized counterfeit currency and arrested nearly 3,000 people suspected of playing a role in counterfeit schemes.
Also, 60 percent of the counterfeit currency passed in the United States last year was produced using digital printing, compared with less than 1 percent in 1995, according to the secret service's year-end report.
"Trends in counterfeiting have been influenced in recent years by computer-based technologies," the report reads. "Personal computers and advancements in digital printing technology make it possible to manufacture a passable counterfeit note with relative ease."
To combat counterfeiters, the government has made modern bills with a slew of security features for people to look for in case they suspect they are not getting the real thing.
Primarily, watermarks bearing the portrait of the person on the bill – Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin – and vertical security threads identifying the denomination are hard to fake.
There is also microprinting in different areas of each denomination, according to the secret service, and the portraits should appear "lifelike," not "lifeless and flat."
Sometimes, the mind knows something is wrong with a bill before it begins to put together the specifics, though.
"The first thing is it probably doesn't look right," Ladig said. "Sometimes it doesn't feel right. Sometimes the paper is too thick or too thin. If it doesn't feel right, pull another bill out of your purse or wallet and compare them."
Many businesses have cashiers use special pens or markers that are advertised as a quick way to detect fake currency, but that hasn't stopped people from trying to pay with counterfeit bills.
Spending the bills
Someone at a local Subway spotted some fake bills last month, but it was too late.
Five $20 notes and a $10 bill were all bearing the same serial number, according to a Fort Wayne Police report. The bills also did not have an inside security strip.
The man who brought them in to the southwest-side restaurant on Aug. 16 appeared to be in his 20s, the report said. He wore black shorts and a gray sweatshirt with the hood up to conceal his hair color from security cameras.
Additional information and details in the police report are redacted.
It's not clear how the bills ended up in the hands of Subway staff, but a detective asked one employee if he is allowed to swap out money.
No arrest has been made, but the case represents a relatively unusual one in Fort Wayne.
Many counterfeit cases city police are called about involve just one or two fake bills. There will be a $50 bill at a gas station, maybe a $20 bill at the sandwich shop or a $100 bill somewhere else.
Not multiple bills at the same location, at least not often.
"We've had some people with 11 $100 bills," Ladig said. "It does happen."
Most are like one last month, where two phony $100 bills were found at an apartment while police were investigating a domestic dispute. No arrests were made, however.
This month, a south-side furniture store called police after someone tried to present a fake $100 bill, but the man left and no arrests were made.
A south side McDonald's was hit with several counterfeit bills at the beginning of this year, all from different transactions and involving different currencies.
Each time, employees noticed the fake bills and no losses were reported, according to police reports.
And nobody was caught, which isn't unusual.
Typically, Ladig said, people with counterfeit money spend it during busy hours at fast food restaurants, hoping that young cashiers won't notice any flaws in the money.
Garage sales are hit sometimes, but people who deal on websites like www.craigslist.com come across counterfeit bills relatively frequently, according to Ladig.
"If you're going to get fake money, you're probably going to find it while dealing with someone in a dim parking lot," he said, referring to transactions occurring over meetings made on sites like craigslist.
According to a police report, a man accused of using fake money to order a meal at a McDonald's earlier this year told police he got counterfeit $20 bills while making change for a man at a gas station down the street.
"He stated that he gave him a $50 bill and in turn received two $20 that he paid with and two $5 bills," the report said.
Last owner loses
The sad reality of receiving a fake bill is that whoever has it last is the one who loses, according to Ladig.
Police advise people who come into possession of a counterfeit note with no idea of how they got it or who gave it to them, to turn it into their financial institution. That financial institution will in turn give it to the secret service. That person, though, does not get a real bill in return.
Many businesses and citizens do end up calling police, but Ladig said police should be called when there is a reasonable idea of where the money came from. Otherwise, a report will probably be written, but it will be hard to catch anyone responsible for passing off the fake note.
"It would be useful to call the police if you have a large amount of money and know who gave it to you," Ladig said. "If it would take a crystal ball to figure out who gave it you, take it to your financial institution."