At a Rose Parade festival about five years ago, counterfeiters struck Pete Mogannam's deli while passing phony bills at more than a dozen stores in downtown Santa Rosa.
Mogannam's Fourth Street Market and Deli got stuck with a fake $100 bill. He later heard that 13 other merchants also had accepted the funny Benjamins.
"They always manage to get you when you're going 100 miles per hour," Mogannam said of the counterfeiters' method of coming at the busiest times of the day.
U.S. currency has become increasingly difficult to duplicate, with ultraviolet "security threads" and a color-shifting ink technology that was developed in Santa Rosa more than a quarter century ago.
But counterfeiters have also stepped up the sophistication of their craft. In one week in mid-October, the U.S. Secret Service office in San Francisco reported collecting $46,000 in fake currency.
"That's a low week," Special Agent Chip Roberts told a group of merchants last week in Sonoma. The weekly count is typically between $50,000 and $100,000, accumulated in the Bay Area and coastal region from Monterey to the Oregon border.
That may sound like a small hit on the economy, Roberts said. But it involves a large number of fake bills passed and plenty of businesses that suffered losses.
The Secret Service made a presentation Thursday to Bank of the West commercial clients in Sonoma. Stacey Scudder, the bank's Sonoma branch manager, said she wanted her merchants to learn ways to quickly and easily identify authentic currency.
With the coming holiday season, both law enforcement and banks are urging merchants to increase their vigilance for bad bills.
"There's more people out. There's more money changing hands," said Charles White, assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service office in San Francisco.
Michael J. Leonard, vice president for risk management at Santa Rosa's Exchange Bank, said during the holidays more people are standing in line and more merchants are hurried to do transactions.
"All that is in favor of the crook," Leonard said.
Estimates on the amount of counterfeit bills in circulation vary from $70 million to $250 million, according to a 2006 report from the Department of the Treasury.
Roberts told the Sonoma merchants that in one six-month period in 2006, the Secret Service took in $63 million in counterfeit currency.
It isn't just merchants who are targeted. A current trend is for counterfeiters to use their phony money to buy items on Craigslist, Roberts said. The sellers typically don't know they've been duped until they use the money at a store. The clerks suspect the bills are fake and police are called in to ask why the sellers are passing bad currency.
At the Secret Service presentation, Parson's Lumber and Hardware owner Alan Medina told Roberts that merchants want to help their staffs watch out for counterfeit currency. "What are the best guidelines we can give them?" he asked.
Roberts named four things to look for in denominations of $5 and above:
-- Watermark. In the right-hand side, you can see a second faint image of the person shown on the bill (for example, Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill). The older $5 bills have Abraham Lincoln, while the new ones have a "5" as the watermark.
-- Paper. The cotton and linen bills should have small red and blue fibers randomly embedded in the paper.