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Durango police follow the (fake) money

Thousands of dollars worth of counterfeit bills making the rounds
Durango Police Department officer Victoria Stancampiano holds counterfeit money Wednesday that had been circulated around Durango. The police department says thousands of dollars worth of counterfeit bills are making the rounds. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Counterfeit bills are showing up in droves, prompting the Durango Police Department to warn residents and cashiers to be extra-vigilant when examining bills they pass and accept.

Counterfeit bills began appearing with greater frequency in December, and the number of bills being passed has only grown this month, said Detective Deondre Ball of the police department.

“Each day we’re having two, three, four different instances with fake bills,” Ball said. “They're not using them all in the same spot. It's all in different places. They’re being mixed in with different bills, and it's just an absolute mess right now.”

The bills have shown up at fast food restaurants, grocery stores, retail stores and chain stores like Walgreens and Walmart. The denominations include virtually all of them: $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100.

“Every single day, it’s something new,” Ball said. “I don't think any business is safe. I’m even getting them back from banks.”

Durango police demonstrate a UV detection light that illuminates a security stripe on the left side of the bill Wednesday. Modern U.S. bills have integrated UV security features that only show up under ultraviolet light at certain frequencies. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The Durango Police Department has made a couple of arrests and has identified several suspects. “I'm working on multiple warrants right now,” Ball said. But it is not always an easy crime to investigate or prosecute.

In some cases, people passing fake bills may be unaware they are in possession of counterfeit bills. In other cases, a suspect can claim ignorance and police must build a case that shows knowledge and intent to defraud a business.


That is what happened earlier this week when police arrested Raymond White Cloud Mendoza on suspicion of felony forgery.

According to an arrest affidavit, Mendoza tried to use a fake $100 bill to pay for $14 worth of items at north City Market. The cashier immediately recognized the $100 bill as a forgery and refused to accept the payment.

Mendoza acted surprised and searched his pockets for alternative payment. He produced $6 in what is presumed to be legitimate cash, but the cashier informed him that $6 was inadequate to cover $14 worth of goods.

Mendoza left the store and headed toward Mac’s Liquor Store, which is across the parking lot.

An employee at City Market called Mac’s Liquor to inform the clerk that Mendoza was headed their way and that he had just attempted to use a counterfeit bill at City Market, according to the affidavit.

At Mac’s Liquor, Mendoza is suspected of attempting to purchase a Gatorade and two lighters with a fake $50 bill. The clerk inspected the bill and recognized it as counterfeit money, according to the affidavit.

Mendoza told police he received two $50 bills from someone who hired him on two occasions to shovel snow, according to the affidavit. Police placed him under arrest and found him to be in possession of more than $500 worth of counterfeit bills, according to the affidavit.

Mendoza eventually admitted to attempting to defraud other businesses with the counterfeit bills, according to the affidavit.

Ball said the bills can easily be purchased online. Many of the bills look authentic. But on closer inspection they are clearly labeled as being “Copy” or “For Motion Picture Use Only” or including the words “This note is not legal tender, for all motion picture use only.”

Currently, the largest source of the bills, at least locally, may have come from Durango School District 9-R, he said.

The Durango Police Department demonstrates how a counterfeit detection pen works on U.S. bills. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Ball said someone broke into the school district and stole piles of fake money. The money is used to teach financial literacy. The bills, if real, would have had a face value of about $8,000, he estimated.

“We suspect that's probably where the majority of this is coming from,” Ball said.

A spokeswoman for the school district said the break-in occurred Jan. 8 at the administrative offices. No staff were present at the time of the burglary. The school district declined to release further details, saying it is an ongoing investigation.

A counterfeit detection pen can be used on U.S. bills to indicate whether they are real or fraudulent. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Our elementary school students do use play money for a lesson in math,” the school district said in a statement to The Durango Herald. “It is clearly marked as play money and is purchased on a website that sells curriculum materials for teachers.”

While it is impossible to know how many people are introducing fake bills into circulation, Ball said he is sure more than 10 people are involved locally.

Last week, police found 13 people living below the former Red Snapper restaurant in downtown Durango. In addition to drugs, police found large sums of counterfeit bills strewed about the floor.

Fake money is scattered on the floor of the Red Snapper restaurant basement, where 13 people, including a child, were found taking shelter last week. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

One trend among people passing fake bills is to use large denominations, like $50s or $100s, in an effort to get businesses to break the bills and return real bills as change.

The fraudsters have been known to crumple the fake bills and scuff them up to make them look and feel more legitimate, he said.

“I would ask people to be wary about breaking these bills without proper precautions,” Ball said.

The most simple precaution includes carefully inspecting bills to make sure they don’t say “Copy,” “For Motion Picture Use Only” or denote inauthenticity in some other way. And cashiers should make sure they inspect every bill. Some scammers have been mixing fake bills with real bills to throw people off, Ball said.

“People are handing in wads of money to different places and mixed in with this money is going to be one fake bill or a couple of fake bills,” he said.

Other precautions include checking for security features, such as watermarks, microprinting, security threads, color-shifting ink, and red and blue fibers embedded into the paper. Businesses should also consider using counterfeit detectors like UV lights that illuminate security stripes and special pens that leave different colored marks on the bill depending on if they are real or fake.

If cashiers receive a fake bill, they should contact police dispatch at 385-2900 to report the crime.

“We'll get an officer out there. We'll check the bill,” Ball said. “There’s absolutely no harm in that.”

Counterfeit bills circulating in Durango include the words "Copy" and "For Motion Picture Use Only." (Courtesy of Durango Police Department)

It is not a crime to be in possession of a counterfeit bill, he said. The crime occurs when someone knowingly passes the bill in an attempt to defraud someone else.

Ball said he has spoken with two or three people who tried to use fake bills but had no idea the bills were counterfeit.

“And I believe that,” he said.

Other people are “playing that game,” he said, acting as if they had no idea the bills were fake when in fact they did.

Police must establish that the same person keeps trying to pass fraudulent money even after being made aware the money is counterfeit, he said.

Penalties can vary depending on the degree to which someone is involved and how much knowledge they have of the enterprise.

“You’re looking at felony-level cases or instances here when people are going to multiple businesses and defrauding these businesses of actual money,” he said.

So far, the cases are being handled in district court. But if the sums in fraudulent spending keep racking up, the Durango Police Department may contact the FBI for guidance, he said.

“These bills are being handed (out) every single day left and right, just hand to hand to hand,” Ball said. “Even if we take whatever we have off the street and lock some people up, it's spreading like wildfire.

“It continues to grow. It continues to get worse. Right now we're just trying to take everything that we can off the streets so we can just stop this issue.”


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