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Saturday, December 1, 2012 - Page updated at 06:30 a.m.

Beware of counterfeit money on the road

By JOE SHARKEY
The New York Times

MEXICO CITY — The cabdriver held my 200-peso note up to the sunlight filtering through his dirty windshield. “This no good,” he said.

“What do you mean no good?” I asked.

“Counterfeit,” he said, snapping the note with his fingers.

I handed him another 200-peso note out of my wallet.

“This also,” he said, a little peevishly. “No good!”

I was presented with a quandary. Was I being swindled by a cabdriver in some clever way? Or was I actually inadvertently papering a foreign capital with fake money? Should the police be called?

They should not, advised a helpful assistant manager at the hotel front desk where I inquired after I found genuine money to pay the cabdriver. The manager held my two rejected bank notes under infrared light, which confirmed that both were counterfeit. I said that I had changed money at a currency exchange counter at the airport, nowhere else. Why not phone the police?

He shrugged and said, “If you can’t prove that you got it where you say, you could be sued for slander. And why get the police involved over a small sum? It’s a crime to possess counterfeit money.”

The man confided that several years ago, on a business trip to England, he had unwittingly passed a counterfeit British 20 pound note to a cabdriver, and the driver had summoned the police. “A Latin man with counterfeit money in London? I spent a night in jail before I was released without charge,” he said.

So I stuck the two fake bills in an envelope, not to be used. But as an American visitor unknowingly handing out fake money, I had learned a few easy lessons. One, of the $200 that I had exchanged at the airport, only those two 200-peso notes — worth about $15.40 each — were counterfeit. Two, upon inspection, it was obvious that the notes were printed on cheap paper, without standard water marks and other features of legitimate currency. And three, assuming your loss is small, it may not always be a good idea to involve the police in some countries where even routine law enforcement intervention may become unexpectedly complicated.

Counterfeit money can be a problem anywhere in the world, including at your local convenience store in the United States. But the London-based global foreign exchange company Travelex says that the counterfeit currencies it sees most often are the euro, British pound, Mexican peso, Argentine peso, Peruvian sol and Chinese yuan. “Counterfeit currency is a significant concern in China,” the U.S. State Department says on its website. “Cabdrivers and businesses have given many people, not just tourists, counterfeit currency.”

In Mexico, I obtained my fraudulent money from one of the many airport money exchange booths — not Travelex, by the way. “Travelex takes many steps to avoid the purchase or sale of counterfeit notes in our stores,” including obtaining currencies only from well-known suppliers and physically inspecting notes carefully, said Maria Brusilovsky, a spokeswoman.

Most international business travelers like to have at least some local money in their pockets on arrival. In the past, I’ve depended on local bank ATMs for foreign currency. Last month, before a short trip to Germany, I arranged a few days in advance to obtain a small sum in euros from my local Chase Bank branch. Once abroad, I usually use a credit card to pay for hotels, meals and other things, but I am careful to know about foreign exchange fees. (And I don’t know anyone who still uses traveler’s checks. Do you?)

In Mexico, Banco de Mexico said that the number of counterfeit notes removed from circulation last year rose about 9 percent over 2010, and that the sharpest rate of increase in counterfeits was in the lowly 50-peso note. In Britain, the Bank of England said that 20 pound notes were the most commonly counterfeited, and that the total number of counterfeit notes removed from circulation increased 24 percent last year compared with 2010, though that’s “significantly below the 2008 peak.”

In the U.S., the State Department, which recently updated its travel warning about security in Mexico, says the following about counterfeit money in Mexico in a separate warning: “A number of U.S. citizens have been arrested for passing on counterfeit currency they had earlier received in change. If you receive what you believe to be a counterfeit bank note, bring it to the attention of Mexican law enforcement.” But as I indicated, calling the authorities in some countries may not necessarily be good advice for small amounts of counterfeit currency. Call me prudent.

The best way to avoid getting or passing counterfeit money is to have a good look. Like my fake pesos, counterfeit money often (but definitely not always) looks and feels wrong on close inspection, the experts say. The European Central Bank has a website promoting a “feel, look, tilt” technique for inspecting bank notes.

And my fake pesos failed on every count.