By Steven Zimmerman
Imagine yourself walking through a grocery store or Walmart, filling your cart with things you need around the house. You’re checking off items on your list and decide to grab a couple of extra things. You make your way to the registers and discover you can’t pay for any of it.
As you stand there, looking at the register and the cashier, you are astonished at what you were just told.
“I think this is fake,” the cashier says as she hands the cash right back to you.
The cashier, even after running the counterfeit detecting pen across the front and back of your bill, still hands it to you. She finally calls over a manager.
“It just doesn’t look like a real twenty,” says the manager handing it back to you.
For Nancy Gomez, of El Paso, Texas, this has been going on for the last four years.
The twenty-dollar bill is genuine United States currency. The only drawback, it’s forty-five years old and slightly mis-cut.
“A friend of mine gave it to me a while back,” said Nancy Gomez.
This might sound a bit farfetched, not being able to spend actual legal tender, so I was with her as she tried to use the bill.
When Nancy tried to spend the $20, she was told not only that they thought it was fake, but that there were no watermarks or security threads common in current currency.
As a last resort, the bill was used at the self-checkout at Walmart. The machine would not take the money.
“When the cashier called the manager at Walmart,” said Nancy, referring to the time they ran the counterfeit detecting pen across the bill, “they said even fake money could get through the pen.”
Another time, when at BestBuy, she encountered the same issue with a $100-bill she had. That one she was able to spend elsewhere, just not at BestBuy.
“They wouldn’t take it,” said Nancy. “They even said they couldn’t call a manager because it was Christmas time.”
Again, it all sounds odd, but it’s sadly not as uncommon as one would think.
In 2005, Mike Bolesta was arrested for paying his BestBuy bill with $2 bills. When the Secret Service arrived at the police station they declared the bills legitimate.
Lorenzo Gaspar, of Shelbyville, Tennessee, was arrested and later released for using an older $50 bill at a convenience store. Both the clerk and the arresting officer thought the bill was counterfeit.
Then there is the story of Emory Ellis, a Boston man who was arrested in 2015 for using a genuine $20 bill to pay for breakfast at Burger King.
How do mistakes like this happen? The answer is not an easy one. Part of the problem, the more significant part of the problem, stems from young people not knowing how money has evolved.
“They believe everything is the way it is now, that it’s never been different,” said Nancy Gomez.
She has a point.
The manager at Walmart was not much older than twenty-three. The clerks to whom the $20 bill was given were all eighteen or nineteen years old. For them, and I’m not knocking them, all they have ever seen is the money currently in circulation.
When I showed a photo of the bill to several people, all between the ages of seventeen to twenty, none of them thought it was real.
“That’s that money they use in videos and movies,” said Amber.
“Look at this here,” said Juan, who took his time to study the picture, “the face of the president is too small. Can’t be real.”
“Is it from a game,” asked Bri.
I guess Nancy was right; no one seems to know what a bill looked like forty or fifty years ago.
As I said, Nancy still has the bill. She took it to a bank, and they were more than willing to give her a new one.
“They said that this one would be sent back to the Federal Reserve and destroyed,” said Nancy. “I’m going to take it to a coin collector to see if it’s worth anything at this point.”
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