The order was fairly standard—salads and some drinks for a customer wearing a bright blue and yellow Hawaiian print shirt. The man handed the cashier a $100 bill, received change and left.
Back in the office, The Mixing Bowl restaurant owner Grace Lee watched the scene unfold on the security camera system. She couldn’t explain it, she said, but when she saw the man enter her business, she got a “weird feeling.”
Thirty minutes later, fellow Temescal merchant Mary Busby came into the restaurant with a warning: A man had just come into her religious book and art store and tried to pass them a counterfeit $100 bill. When Lee checked her register, she found counterfeit currency—the $100 bill they just accepted had blurred images and an unfamiliar cottony feel, clear signs of a fake.
“The staff knows to check the light,” Lee said, referring to how a bill can be held up to sunlight to reveal hidden images, printed there as anti-counterfeiting measures. “But when a human being is in front of them, pressuring them … you’re just trying to get through the register.”
Some businesses, like The Mixing Bowl, see $100 bills a few times a week, so the mere presence of a high denomination bill does not necessarily set off warning lights, Lee said.
According to reports from merchants, this same man visited about eight businesses along Telegraph Avenue in Temescal last week, said Darlene Drapkin, executive director of the Temescal Business Improvement District. Three of them—including Lee’s restaurant—accepted counterfeit bills.
Temescal merchants said counterfeit bills surface in the area perhaps once or twice a year. In 2012, the OPD received 80 calls about counterfeit currency citywide, said OPD spokesperson Sgt. Chris Bolton. Police officers took reports in 32 of those cases, Bolton said.
Chris Specker, owner of game store It’s Your Move, which is located next door to The Mixing Bowl, said the shop was also visited by the man with the counterfeit currency, who wanted to purchase a chess set, a gift for his uncle, he told Specker. When the man chose a scratched board from the case, Specker said she thought it was odd, but didn’t question the decision.
The friendly and charismatic man then put down an old $100 bill with washed and tattered edges, Specker said. When held to the light, it didn’t reveal the vertical strip bearing the bill’s denomination, which guarantees authenticity. Specker refused to take the bill, instead referring the man to the nearby Bank of the West so he could get change. The man never returned, Specker said.
“Crime around here is usually during Christmastime,” she said. “It’s an odd time of the year for this stuff.”
Back at The Mixing Bowl, Lee was forced to absorb the cost of having accepted a fake bill. She chose not to contact the Oakland Police Department. “No blood was shed, there was no violence—it doesn’t merit an OPD call,” she said.
Instead, neighboring merchants formed their own type of patrol. After the man visited Busby’s store, Sagrada Sacred Arts, she went from business to business, warning owners of the fake bills. “It’s faster than the phone,” she said. “I didn’t think of calling OPD at the moment—there’s not much they can do about it at that point.”
Drapkin also sent an email out to hundreds of merchants in the Temescal. Busby later called a police officer, who reviewed the incident with her, gave her tips on how to identify fake currency and told her to call back if the man tried to pass bills at her store again. Busby said the man who gave her the counterfeit bill is African-American, about 5’9” with a friendly demeanor.
A phone tree connecting all of the Temescal merchants is also in the works, Drapkin said.
The nearby Bank of the West has offered to help merchants verify bills’ authenticity. Since banks have more sophisticated anti-counterfeiting tools, like money counters and UV lights, which can be used to examine the paper the bills are printed on, they are often in the best position to help merchants, said Bryntnee Iverson, a manager for the bank. Merchants can go to the merchant-specific window at the Telegraph branch location to get bills checked out, she said. Any counterfeit bills detected by Bank of the West are then sent to the U.S. Secret Service, which deals with currency authenticity.
But the counterfeit bill at The Mixing Bowl will have a different purpose—training tool for staff to learn about fake currency, Lee said.