PHONY OPPORTUNITIES

by

Albert H. Morehead

Anyone familiar with movies, TV or radio knows better than to make counterfeit money. Those T-men! They’ll whisk you off to Leavenworth before you can say “Crime doesn’t pay.” But that doesn’t mean counterfeiting is a lost art. Often it’s easier and more profitable to counterfeit other things.

Tickets for a hit show like South Pacific, or for a World Series, bring in as much money as $50 bills and are a thousand times as easy to make. The crook’s principal danger is that the local cops will grab him for scalping, which is only a misdemeanor, whereupon the unsold tickets found on him will change the charge to forgery, which is a felony.

Legally, a counterfeit is a fraudulent imitation of any object; forgery is any use of writing for fraudulent purposes. You can be legally guilty of forgery even if you don’t try to imitate somebody else’s handwriting.

Wise crooks recognize lottery tickets as the safest counterfeiting there is. It was once estimated that more than three-fourths of all Irish Sweepstakes tickets sold in the United States were fakes. Sellers of fake lottery tickets don’t get caught because buyers never complain; they have no reason to suspect anything. They just didn’t win, that’s all.

The gambling world has a special appeal to counterfeiters. Some of the most ingenious printing establishments ever known were set up to copy pari-mutuel tickets, and to copy them in a matter of minutes. One gang had theirs in a trailer in the parking lot outside Santa Anita; as soon as a race was over, a member of the gang would rush from the track to the trailer, where they would print a few dozen $10 tickets with the number of the winning horse on them. The Long Island Railroad detectives actually discovered a printing press on one of the trains running from New York to Belmont Park. The counterfeiters also had a portable radio set, and would get the results of the daily double and print the winning tickets on their way to the track. Then three members would get off, enter the track, and cash the tickets, while the other members would carry the equipment back to New York on the next train. They cashed in more than $20,000 in a single day, and before they were nabbed they had collected nearly $100,000, none of which was ever recovered.

Richest pickings of all would be the chips used in gambling houses — if they weren’t so hard to copy. In many gambling houses the yellow chips are good for $25 to $100 each, upon presentation at the cashier’s window. These chips were made from special dies that are accurate within a few thousandths of an inch. When the dies are not in use they are sealed and locked up in a safe. If a counterfeit chip doesn’t have precisely the right dimensions it won’t stack perfectly with genuine chips and the counterfeit will be instantly detected. Somebody got away with about $11,000 from a Las Vegas gambling house in 1949 before the plot was discovered; he was smart enough to quit there, so he never got caught. Monte Carlo uses the world’s most elaborate chips; they are molded of plastics but have a distinctive metal inlay made from a die that cost several thousand dollars. There has been no trouble at Monte Carlo because, apparently, counterfeiters have felt that reproducing the die would cost more than the potential profit is worth. Another reason counterfeiters steer clear of the gambling houses is that the underworld has a very strict penalty for being caught. You never get off with a jail sentence.

The most artistic counterfeiting of all can’t be prosecuted and isn’t technically unlawful. In times of war, all countries counterfeit the currency of their enemies. During World War II the Germans made such perfect British pounds and U. S dollars that experts admit privately they still can’t tell them from the genuine ones under a microscope; it takes a chemical test of the paper.

The next-best counterfeiting job of this century was done by a gang that printed American Express travelers’ checks. They even went so far as to duplicate a blot that appears on the genuine checks, due to a slight imperfection in the printing process. This case is classic proof that the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley: The counterfeiters themselves probably had their plans carefully laid, and would have grabbed the loot and scrammed before they could be caught; but a petty-thieving bartender stole a book of the phony checks from the coat pocket of a gang member, and not knowing they were phony he passed a few without covering up his tracks. He was nabbed and the gang was traced through him

This same gang was active in another form of counterfeiting: merchandise labels. They take a type of merchandise in which the manufacturing cost is low and the price is based chiefly on the manufacturer’s trade name and reputation for quality — for example, Gillette blades or Bayer aspirin. They copy the original product as closely as possible and sell in “close-out lots” to big wholesalers. Equally prevalent is the counterfeiting of phonograph records. All they need do is buy a genuine record and duplicate both the record (which is easy) and the label, which is a simple printing lob. Some firms have gone to court insisting that this practice is entirely legitimate, since the copyright law doesn’t protect recorded music. The courts, so far, haven’t agreed with them.

As mentioned above, circulation of counterfeit money has dropped off somewhat. There was an amusing influx of it into California a few years ago when Alcatraz set up a printing shop as part of its vocational rehabilitation program for convicts; within a few weeks the convicts were printing ten-dollar bills and smuggling them out of prison. Now there is no printing shop at Alcatraz. The most prevalent form of counterfeiting is the making of slugs for slot machines, but there is no cash return unless the crook buys hundreds of packs of cigarettes and sells them at distress prices, and the net profit is hardly a subsistence income these days. Five-cent slugs are just as illegal as hundred-dollar bills, but not nearly as annoying, though the telephone company does take in $600,000 worth of slugs a year, costing its stockholders about 50 cents apiece.

Speaking of 50 cents, the most baffling counterfeiting that’s done nowadays is in silver coin. The counterfeiters try to duplicate the genuine coin as closely as possible, including silver content, because a half-dollar costs only 30 cents to make and buys 50 cents worth of beefsteak. On the other hand, the counterfeiter could make just as big a margin of profit by running a shoe store, and with less work, not to speak of the risk. However, the underworld works cheaper than the respectable world. A petty hustler who makes slot-machine slugs must be content with about $18 a week. The misdirected artists who produced the fake travelers’ checks got only $15,000, which made the American Express Company wonder why they had paid the American Bank Note Company $100,000 for the same job.

The T-men (Secret Service) have jurisdiction only when U. S. fiscal documents (money, stamps, securities) are imitated; the F.B.I. when any counterfeiting or forgery case has an interstate aspect; the Post Office detectives when the mails are used. Nevertheless all of them sit in on every counterfeiting case, even when they aren’t directly involved. They want to meet anybody who has both the ability and the habit of faking genuine articles. The last time the Secret Service caught a postage-stamp counterfeiter it was because they knew all about him. They had seen him in a state court where he was convicted of counterfeiting Gillette labels. After that they watched him constantly, and his only sale of stamps was to a T-man disguised as a postman.

The great geniuses of counterfeiting history worked in unique fields and aren’t really comparable with underworld members. One was Van Meegeren, the Dutch painter whose copies of Rembrandt, Vermeer and other masters fooled the greatest experts, and who got a quarter of a million dollars from Hermann Goering for one of his fakes. The other is the Frenchman Le Brun, who has reproduced rare postage stamps with such fidelity as to convince the wariest philatelists. It has proved hard to arouse any public indignation against such men. If they’re that good, says the man in the street, I favor letting them get away with it.