Following the funny money trail

January 5, 2009 4:23:26 PM PST
The US Secret Service is helping Baytown police in searching for a man accused of passing hundreds of dollars in counterfeit money. Investigators say the phony bills are "the best they've seen." [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Baytown investigators questioned the man they say passed the counterfeit money. They also searched his house Monday morning for any evidence but found nothing. Now they're hoping he'll lead them to the mastermind of the operation.

About $800 in counterfeit cash was seized by Baytown police. Investigators are calling it one of the largest busts they've ever made. What's more, they say the fake currency belonged to just one man -- a local tattoo artist.

"He said he exchanged them for service as a tattoo artist from a customer the day before," said Lt. Eric Freed with the Baytown Police Department.

Police say the man passed the counterfeit cash at two separate locations in Baytown. The first was a Wal-Mart on Garth road. He allegedly used $700 to buy a Playstation 3 and two games. Investigators say the transaction went through because the clerk failed to use a special pen designed to spot fake bills.

Later that day, at the man's next stop, he wouldn't be so lucky.

Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Leo Vasquez said, "The actual texture didn't feel right."

Vasquez says the suspect tried to spend another hundred dollars of the counterfeit currency at the Baytown tax office on Baker Road, in an attempt to renew his car registration. Only this time, the fakes were discovered.

"After they used a pen to check it off and also used a black light and other steps comparing it against our procedure, the system worked and it caught it before it went through," Vasquez explained.

The difference between a real $50 bill and a fake one is subtle. The real bill is printed with color changing ink. The counterfeit one is not.

"It looked like a high end quality printer did it," Lt. Freed said. "The quality of paper is not consistent with the type of material the treasury uses."

The suspect, who is not facing any charges, has since provided police with information which they hope will lead them to the brains of the entire operation.

The Harris County Tax Assessor Collector says counterfeit cases like this are rare. Of all the cash that passes through there in a year, about $1,000 ends up being counterfeit.

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