$1.1 Million in Fake Bills, Using a Printer

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ATLANTA -- Making fake money remains a thriving enterprise in the United States, as it has been since before the Civil War.

A few counterfeit artists still engrave metal plates and search for soft paper that approximates the government's proprietary blend. Others soak money in a chemical soup, rubbing off ink to create $100 bills out of fives.

But in more than two-thirds of all cases, criminals manipulate scanners, printers and toner ink to create money where once there was none.

Heath J. Kellogg, 36, whom the United States attorney's office here described as a self-taught graphic artist, is in the latter category.

Until federal agents arrested him in an Atlanta suburb in November, he was what people in his criminal circle called "the printer" -- a man suspected of pumping more than $1.1 million in fake $50 bills into the Southern economy.

As counterfeiting cases go, Mr. Kellogg's is not a record-breaker. (Neither was one last year in which a 26-year-old Atlanta man used solvents and a printer to turn $5 bills into $100 bills, making $1.2 million in fake money.)

Still, a counterfeiting ring in which one man prints more than $1 million in fake money is no small deal. And catching Mr. Kellogg required a few lucky breaks for law enforcers, months of old-fashioned detective work and an ill-fated decision not to bail someone out.

"His bills were pretty good," said Malcolm D. Wiley, an agent in the Atlanta Secret Service field office, who added that it was unusual to see fake 50s. A 20 is the most commonly counterfeited bill, followed by the $100 bill.

In addition to computer equipment and bits of partly burned money found at Mr. Kellogg's home, agents found a newly purchased offset press in Mr. Kellogg's storage unit, according to documents in the case.

"They had a lot of confidence and thought they could do even better," Mr. Wiley said of Mr. Kellogg and the five other people who have been charged with conspiracy to counterfeit currency.

If you handle money regularly, it is likely that you have passed at least one fake bill, according to the Secret Service, which was created in 1865 to stop rampant counterfeiting.

Advances in technology have allowed more people to make somewhat passable fakes, Mr. Wiley said. Those in the business range from high school students to gang members with prison records.

Nationally, the Secret Service seized nearly $81 million in fake money and arrested 2,424 people in the fiscal year that ended in October. Bills come in from other countries -- Peru is a particularly big contributor -- or from local criminals who shift to counterfeiting as an alternative to the drug trade.

Eventually, after it has been discovered by bank tellers, automated teller machine scanning equipment or astute citizens who have taken the time to learn how to identify fake bills, much of the counterfeit money makes its way to the Secret Service.

Georgia, with its busy airport and postal distribution center, is better known for stolen Social Security and tax refund checks than for counterfeiting, but state ranks third in that crime category. In 2011 a federal task force was formed to attack the problem. One of its biggest victories came last month when a postal supervisor pleaded guilty to stealing United States Treasury checks worth more than $3 million.

But the case of Mr. Kellogg was one of the South's bigger ones, and cracking it took months.

The first break came in May 2011, when an Atlanta-area bank sent the Secret Service several counterfeit bills that could be identified by missing numbers and other flaws.

Then, said Alana R. Black, the assistant United States attorney who is prosecuting the case, matching bills showed up in the summer of 2012 when the police in Conyers, Ga., arrested someone trying to pass 10 of Mr. Kellogg's fake $50 bills at a local business.

The person, who had a history of forgery convictions, became a confidential informant, telling investigators that $250 in legitimate money would buy $1,000 in fake bills.

The informant was also angry that Stacy P. Smith, 37, who was one of the six men who would later be charged in the counterfeiting conspiracy, did not provide bail as he had done other times after similar arrests. Names, cellphone numbers and physical descriptions of the suspected players in the ring poured forth.

In North Carolina and around the nation, more of the same fake bills showed up. Forensic analysis tied those bills to the Atlanta case.

Another person who had been arrested with his Kellogg's fake money began helping agents. Conversations were monitored and cellphone records were obtained. The Secret Service arranged several "buy throughs," watching as informants paid $900 for $2,000 in fake cash.

Agents traced toner purchases back to Mr. Kellogg, and arrested a small group of men at a home improvement store in Woodstock, Ga., where they were using Mr. Kellogg's bills to buy things like alarm systems and then returning them for real money.

Natasha Perdew Silas, a federal public defender and Mr. Kellogg's lawyer, declined to comment. Like the others arrested, Mr. Kellogg has pleaded not guilty.

His father, James C. Kellogg, 63, was also charged, but his lawyer, William H. Thomas Jr., said his link to the case is tenuous. Prosecutors say the counterfeiting was a family enterprise, with father helping son glue bills together. Cans of spray glue found at the elder Mr. Kellogg's house support the conspiracy charge, they said.

But Mr. Thomas said that the elder Mr. Kellogg cuts lawns for a living, is ill and did not know of his son's dealings.

"Our investigation is going to show his son would come by and utilize the facilities," he said.

The younger Mr. Kellogg has a history of arrests and convictions for passing bad checks, theft, forgery and escape that goes back to 1994 in Georgia. Since leaving prison, he opened a graphic and Web design company called Realseriousink, whose address is also his father's home in Marietta, Ga.

To make his bills, Mr. Kellogg first ran paper through a printer and tinted it yellow, investigators said. He then printed the front of a bill on one sheet of paper. On another, he printed the other side of the bill, flipped over the paper and printed a watermark on the back.

He then approximated the security threads embedded in legitimate bills by using pens with colored inks that would show up under ultraviolet lamps. He would then glue the two sheets together and have a passable bill.

But he could never quite get the paper right, and that is the first key to identifying a fake bill, Mr. Wiley said. Fake bills often feel slick, he said. He encourages people to read "Know Your Money," a tutorial on detecting counterfeit currency by the Secret Service and the Treasury Department.

For his part, Mr. Wiley always checks his bills before he leaves a store or a bank. If you accidentally hand over a fake bill, tellers and clerks are required by law to confiscate it.

"It will not be replaced," he said. "You're pretty much stuck."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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