South Florida, known for sun, fun and sandy beaches, has another distinction: one of the nation's leaders in counterfeit cash.
And the holiday shopping season is the best time to see that.
"We definitely see a spike starting in late November and lasting through the holidays, especially in this economy."
South Florida ranks among the top metro areas in the country for trafficking counterfeit notes, behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, Remer said.
Law enforcement tracks $60,000 to $80,000 a week in counterfeit bills in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties, Remer said.
"We're the busiest in Florida, that's a fact," he said.
In Central Florida, an average of $20,000 in counterfeit currency is caught each week, said James Glendinning, acting special agent in charge of the Orlando office.
Most of the counterfeit bills in South Florida are real bills that are bleached and reprinted to look like larger denominations, Remer said.
"These bleached bills will pass the pen test most retailers use at cash registers," he said. "So what we train employees to look for is the watermark on the bill."
The watermark, a woven picture in the bill, is not easily seen. Bills must be held up to a light.
"All we're asking is for people is go a step further after the pen," Remer said.
Secret Service agents have been training retail employees at malls across South Florida this week in preparation for the busy holiday season.
If a store accepts a counterfeit bill, the store will we debited by the bank for the mistake. Banks usually catch fake bills, Remer said, but if it passes through a bank, the Federal Reserve will charge the bank for the mistake.
There are two primary sources of counterfeit bills in Florida: professional-grade presses in South American countries such as Colombia and Peru, and inkjet or toner printers locally.
The Secret Service tracks the serial numbers on confiscated counterfeit bills. New authentic bills have unique numbers; counterfeits often repeat the same number.
Read Hayes, a University of Florida researcher who specializes in loss prevention, said counterfeiters look for busy stores and overwhelmed cashiers when they try to pass bills.
"In those smaller stores, particularly in a mall environment where it's very busy, they have a lot of opportunities," Hayes said. Counterfeiters "would like to use larger bills, but they know that bills of $20 and less get less attention."
One common trick in South Florida is to use counterfeit money to buy an expensive item like a computer, and then return it for real currency at another location of the same retailer.
Boynton Beach Police are looking for a man who found another way to convert counterfeit bills. He used counterfeit $100 bills to buy more than $2,000 in gift cards from a Walmart last week.
Shoppers who think they've been given a counterfeit bill should call the U.S. Secret Service's 24-hour hotline at 305-863-5050.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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