LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. – Counterfeit bills are being hustled from up north down into small towns across Virginia, and the ring that produces and distributes these fake hundred dollar bills could have international connections, sources said.
Criminals target gas stations and convenience stores to exchange the fake bills. Small items are purchased using the bills, and then criminals pocket the real cash. In some prior cases, authorities found that criminals had purchased the fake hundred dollar bills for $35.
One suspect arrested in South Hill, on Monday, March 2, had over $2,100 in legal currency. That suspect was taken into custody, with two other people; they had thousands in fake currency among them, police said.
In just one afternoon, between 3 and 6 p.m., the suspects dashed between Emporia, Lawrenceville, Porthsmouth, and Brodnax to swap out the fake bills; at least 16 counterfeit bills passed in one afternoon, police said.
Local law enforcement in those four jurisdictions have been working with the Secret Service, and said the ring operates in at least four states; Virginia, North Carolina, New York, and New Jersey.
“It's our opinion they were targeting smaller towns, smaller jurisdictions not to bring a lot of attention to themselves; where maybe the business owners wouldn't check the bills, wouldn't be quite as up-to-date on where things are -- as far as counterfeit bills are concerned,” said Everett Gibson, Lawrenceville Chief of Police.
As seen in surveillance video obtained by CBS 6, the bills have passed the skeptical eyes of merchants.
“The bills were very good,” Gibson said. “Every merchant that we've come in contact with is doing the correct procedure, they were marking the bills, looking for the strip, checking the texture of the bills, they were doing everything that the banks have taught them to do.”
“They were counterfeit bills, but they were marking as real,” he added.
In some cases the counterfeiters actually pre-marked the bills to make it appear they had been checked by another clerk before. Doing so lends the bills an authentic look, and also gives the counterfeiters’ confidence the currency will pass the test.
The pens that merchants use to test paper currency are not always accurate, police explained.The pens are testing for specially made paper, but counterfeiters are bleaching smaller bills and re-printing on them.
On Monday Gibson was approached by a merchant who felt dubious about the bill he had accepted, even though it passed the test. Authorities were alerted state wide to the suspect’s description. It turned out the man was in South Hill, police said, with the other two suspects.
One of the three arrested, Nicholas Spenser, had previously been in court for the same offense, in South Hampton County. He was arrested along with Andrew E. Curling and Brooke Lynn Shull, all from Portsmouth, Va.
In January 2014 the U.S. Secret Service issued a warning to both consumers and business owners about counterfeit $100 bills turning up in Virginia and nearby states, along the I-95 corridor. Those bills resembled the bills seized Monday, but the serial numbers were different.
Gibson, in law enforcement 27 years, said he hasn’t seen an operation like this before. Typically criminals will use smaller bills and not target as many locations.
“It’s the opinion of law enforcement that these bills are coming from up north and that bills are continuing to come down and merchants should be on the lookout,” said Gibson.