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Monday, October 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Where's George? Tracking the travels of paper currency

By Erik Lacitis
Seattle Times staff reporter

ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Berne Thorpe of Auburn holds up a dollar bill he has "stamped" for later identification as part of a project that lets people check a Web site to see how far their money goes.
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At his peak last December, Berne Thorpe stamped his message on 7,800 U.S. currency bills, mostly ones.

He also entered the serial number and date of issue of each bill into his computer. Then the Auburn man placed the bills back in circulation at a restaurant that needed lots of small bills.

When you're passionate — some might say obsessive — about a hobby, you put in the dozens and dozens of hours. For Thorpe, the hobby is tracking the travels of $1, $5, $10 or $20 bills, the most popular denominations used, and he has plenty of company.

It all started in 1998, when a Brookline, Mass., Web developer wondered what journeys a particular bill took as it passed from person to person.

He created www.wheresgeorge.com, a free site that now has 2.6 million registered participants, with some 26,000 "Georgers" logging in daily. They've marked more than 51 million bills valued at $293 million. That's out of a total of $702 billion in U.S. currency floating in the world, which means lots of bills left to be stamped.

By stamping that Web site on bills — often with a message such as "See where I've been. Track where I go next" — they are inviting the recipients of the bill to go to the Where's George Web site and type in the serial number and their location, yet another entry tracking the bill. Usually the message is stamped on the bill, although a few devotees believe that a handwritten message gets a better response because it's personalized.

"My friends think it's kind of crazy," said Thorpe, 57, who has stamped more than 113,000 bills in the past four years. Not surprisingly, that's what other Georgers report their friends tell them.

Vicki Walton, 55, a health educator from Lake Forest Park, has stamped, but mostly handwritten, the Where's George message on 17,334 bills.

"You bet it's an absolutely ridiculous thing to spend your time doing," she said. "My friends think I'm nuts, too. I guess I'm an accountant by nature."

The accountant part comes in when compiling what state, what county, what city a marked bill has passed through.

Bills have been tracked to Russia, China, Iceland, Australia, South Africa, a ship in the Antarctica.

A church collection plate, a strip club, "out of drug dealers wallet" are all places where the stamped bills have been reported. One bill was tracked as traveling from a credit union in Toledo, Ohio, to a Florida woman who wrote, "I am a female soldier on the front lines in Iraq."

No Secret Service probe

Although there is a federal law about possible fines and up to six months in prison for "whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together" currency to make it "unfit to be reissued," stamping the bills has not drawn the ire of the Secret Service, which would be the investigating agency. A Seattle spokesman for the Secret Service said, "Quite frankly, we wouldn't spend too much looking into this."

The bills sometimes get questioning glances from a checker or a comment at a theater box office, but they're accepted. The bills go through coin-change machines just fine.

Ready to relinquish title

Thorpe has the title of Number One in this state on the George Score, which is based on how many bills he has entered and how many hits he has received on those bills.

Thorpe, an electrical engineer from Auburn, known as the "GTO Guy" on the site (he has been 12 years in restoring a 1967 Pontiac, another passion), has lately tapered off to stamping maybe 700 bills a month. Having reached the top spot, he's ready to give up the title to Jim Sisson ("Somebody From Nowhere!"), of Longview. Right now, Sisson is only four points behind Thorpe on the George Score.

Sisson, 26, does have an advantage in that he's a checker at a supermarket. He lives a few blocks from the store, and during his lunch hour, he swaps marked bills for unmarked ones from the till. He can stamp and log 100 bills during lunch and now is at 72,700. He said that nobody at work has raised any objections and that tellers help collect bills for him.

"I like geography. It gave me a chance to look at maps to see a new place. After a while, it became a habit," he said. He's also taken part in sporadic get-togethers with other Georgers.

"These are normal, everyday people," he said. "The only thing we have in common is our desire to track money."

Vicarious travelers

As with many fads, there is one person who started it all. Hank Eskin, 39, a Web developer from Brookline, Mass., created and runs by himself the Where's George Site.

In 1998, he happened upon a dollar bill that said, "Write this message on 10 other dollars, and good luck will come to you." A minute later, he said, the idea came to him of tracking bills through the Internet.

By selling Where's George baseball caps, coffee mugs and even boxer shorts, and by having a membership program, Eskin keeps the site at break-even.

He said the Secret Service did pay a call on him, but it wasn't about defacing currency. For a while, Eskin was selling "Where's George" rubber stamps, and he was told, Eskin said, that you couldn't advertise on currency.

He stopped selling the stamps, but there are plenty of firms, from the Internet and the Yellow Pages, that make stamps cheaply.

He spends 20 to 30 hours a week keeping the site going, Eskin said. For him, it embodies what an idealized Internet is about.

"It's about community, entertainment. It's just one guy not trying to make money off this thing," said Eskin. "It was a little weekend project. I had no idea it would become what it has. I try to figure out why people just like it. Maybe it's because they spend a dollar today, and next week, it shows up in Texas or California. They get to live vicariously."

By the way, although initially Eskin tracked a few bills himself, he stopped a long time ago. If his Web users live vicariously by tracking the bills, he said, "I live vicariously through my users."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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