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In wake of Unity man's spending spree, education considered key to curbing counterfeiting

Paul Peirce
| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Joseph David Zemba wasn't bashful as he left a trail of counterfeit $100 bills across three Western Pennsylvania counties in recent months, police said.

The 31-year-old Unity man wasn't discriminating as he spent the bills in convenience stores, gas stations and other retail outlets in Westmoreland, Allegheny and Clarion counties, according to officials.

But Zemba's luck ran out recently when state and federal officials charged him with forgery, theft and receiving stolen property for allegedly passing 26 bogus bills since August, records show.

Zemba, of 178 Hughes Road, remains free, but could not be reached for comment. He told police he had no idea he was paid with fake bills for a used ATV he sold, records show.

Although Zemba's case represents a small amount of money — compared with the $1.23 trillion in genuine U.S. currency circulating throughout the world — law enforcement officials say that chipping away at the problem often is the way they are able to get counterfeit money off the streets.

Their efforts appear to be working.

In 2012, the Secret Service confiscated $81 million worth of counterfeit currency, up from $69 million in 2009.

Eric Zahren, special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh field office of the Secret Service, which covers Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said it handles cases involving about $20,000 a month in counterfeit cash.

Officials say the amount of phony cash confiscated fluctuates according to a number of factors, including the time of year and the state of the economy.

They agree that educating the public about counterfeiting is a priority.

Zahren said his office regularly conducts outreach programs for bankers, retailers and other cash handlers about techniques for spotting the fake bills.

Since someone has to first accept a counterfeit bill in order for it to begin circulating, the Secret Service believes that educating first-line retail clerks and bank officials is crucial.

In Zemba's case, officials are offering little information about how the bills were produced because the investigation is ongoing.

Nationally, counterfeiting operations have used various methods to produce fake money.

Some have reportedly soaked real money in a chemical mix to rub off the ink and make $100 bills out of $5 bills.

Very few mimic old-time counterfeiters who engraved metal plates and printed money on paper stock similar to authentic currency, as the method requires fairly sophisticated skills.

“We see it all, some pretty poor stuff to some higher quality,” Zahren said

Most criminals are using computers to generate phony cash, he said.

That's what happened late last year in Atlanta, where a counterfeiter made more than $1.1 million in fake $50 bills before being apprehended by federal agents.

“The advances in technology and the availability of digital technology have enabled a number of individuals without a particular skill set to counterfeit notes, ” Zahren said.

More than 50 percent of local counterfeit cases involve computer-generated bogus bills “rather than through printing presses,” he said.

Many officials predict counterfeiting will continue to increase because the technology is so widely available and understood by such a large segment of the population.

That makes detection the best line of defense.

Many store cashiers will run a special pen over bills to determine whether they are real.

The pens contains an iodine solution that reacts with the starch in wood-based paper, leaving a black stain. When the solution is applied to the fiber-based paper used by the Treasury in real bills, no discoloration occurs.

The pen detects bills printed on normal copier paper.

The Secret Service recommends comparing suspicious bills to currency known to be real and looking for differences in images and other markings.

With the security features on bills today, virtually all counterfeit money can be detected, Zahren said.

“It just takes time to examine the note,” he said.

Zahren said his agents most often see phony $20 bills, although “we do see our share of $100s, too.”

Zemba told state and local officials that he didn't know the cash he passed was counterfeit. He said the money came from a person who bought an all-terrain vehicle from him on the Internet, according to court records.

But officials found that the Internet account Zemba referenced did not exist, records show.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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