Earlier this year, a couple of Fredonia State College students were planning a road trip to Buffalo to hit the Chippewa Street bar scene.
The problem was, they were low on cash. They found an easy solution -- printing dozens of fake bills on their computer. They passed more than $1,000 in counterfeit cash in Buffalo bars before police caught up with them.
That incident, still under investigation by the U.S. Secret Service, is a tiny part of a growing problem for law enforcers in Western New York and throughout the country.
Computers, scanners and printers -- the kind found in millions of American homes and workplaces -- have made counterfeiting so easy that youngsters who haven't even hit their teens are doing it.
"It's getting to be an incredible problem," said Ike Hendershot, special agent in charge of the Buffalo Secret Service office. "We're at a point now where we're getting two or three counterfeiting calls a week from the local police agencies. It's too easy now -- not only for the criminal element but for kids playing on their computers."
Authorities estimate up to $400 million in counterfeit money -- much of it computer-generated -- is now in circulation in the United States. On any given day, police say, thousands of dollars in bogus bills may be passed in Western New York.
Counterfeiting made local headlines earlier this month when five students were caught passing computer-made $20 bills at West Seneca East High School. The bills were made by a graduate of the high school who now attends Clarkson University in Potsdam.
But police say there have been many other such incidents in just the past month. For example:
Tuesday, Buffalo police arrested a woman who paid for a pizza delivered to a home on Stevens Street with a crude $50 bill made with a photocopier. The woman almost got away with it -- the delivery worker took the $50 and gave $35 in change before realizing something was wrong.
On the same day the teens were charged in West Seneca, police in Rochester arrested a student from Rochester Institute of Technology. The 22-year-old computer science major is accused of using his personal computer and computers at the college to make at least $2,000 in fake twenties.
Buffalo officers arrested two men on Nov. 30 after they tried to pass a counterfeit $50 bill at a Tops Market on Genesee Street.
On Nov. 18, Buffalo police narcotics detectives seized a photocopier, paper and $14,000 in counterfeit bills on Liddell Street. Police said officers from the Northwest District came up with information about the counterfeiting during a drug investigation.
Those are small cases. But investigators say that because of Buffalo's proximity to Canada, better organized rings have trafficked many millions of bogus dollars through Western New York.
In one of the biggest counterfeiting cases ever, Real Dupont, 37, of Montreal pleaded guilty last year in federal court here. He admitted to possession of $120 million in counterfeit U.S. bills. Secret Service agents said the probe began when two men were caught in Ellicottville with $100,000 in fake $100 bills. Agents believe $3 million of Dupont's bills may have been spent in the United States.
Police in September 1993 arrested two men in a print shop near Toronto and recovered $2.5 million in phony U.S. bills. The men were charged with running a counterfeiting ring that passed about $4,000 in fake bills in Western New York every week.
"These bills would never be accepted if people would just look at their money," said Patrick A. Rinow, a veteran Secret Service agent specializing in counterfeiting investigations. "If you take a little time to learn what to look for, it isn't really hard to spot a fake."
Rinow said there are two major differences that distinguish real bills from most counterfeits.
"The biggest difference is the quality of the printing," he said. "Real bills are printed by craftsmen who have worked for the Treasury for 20 years or more. They take pride in their work. You'll see sharper features on a real bill; the portraits will have more of a three-dimensional look to them. Most counterfeit bills have a more washed-out look."
The second major difference is in the quality of the paper. Real money paper is made of cotton and linen -- with tiny blue and red nylon fibers -- and is made and shipped under strict security at one plant in Dalton, Mass.
Most counterfeit money is printed on wood-based paper that has a less substantial feel to it and does not hold up well after frequent foldings.
Rinow tells merchants they always should keep an envelope of real currency in their store for comparison purposes. If they suspect someone of trying to pass fake bills, have a procedure in place for calling security or police.
A customer who receives a suspicious bill should make an immediate complaint and refuse to take the bill. If the manager believes the bill is legitimate, he or she should have no problem taking it back, he said. "I tell people, if you have suspicions about the bill, don't walk out of the store with it. Once you do, it's yours."