Seller beware

  • By Evan Caldwell / Herald Writer
  • Saturday, June 19, 2004 9:00pm
  • Business

Safeguards to prevent being the victim of theft, bad checks and counterfeit bills at your summer yard sale are quick, easy and cheap.

Counterfeit bills can turn up at the millions of garage, yard or lawn sales this summer where people may not be trained to spot them. But many security features exist to help prevent getting scammed.

Even though less than half of 1 percent of the money in circulation is counterfeit and being the victim of a counterfeit scam is uncommon, garage sales can be easy targets.

Wallace Shields, a special agent in charge at the U.S. Secret Service’s Seattle office, said counterfeit bills are occasionally found at garage sales during the late spring and early summer yard sale season.

“Once in an area, counterfeiters tend to go from one garage sale to the next so it may seem like a lot of counterfeit operations, but it’s usually not,” Shields said.

If you receive a counterfeit bill, call the police and do not give the bill back, Shields said.

“In most cases, if a person had actually looked at the security features on the bill they would have caught it,” Shields said. “It takes a lot of resources to duplicate the security features on the bills.”

Kit Phillips of Everett said she is not looking at the cash she receives at her garage sale.

“Its probably not something a lot of people look for,” Phillips said. “I don’t even look – I just jam the money in my pocket.”

Security features such as watermarks, colorshifting ink and security thread are simple things to look for on currency. Counterfeit markers that detect fake notes can be found at most office supply stores.

Wendy Christie of Everett has never been the victim of counterfeit schemes, but she said she doesn’t accept $100 bills.

“It would be weird to see a $100 bill at a garage sale,” Christie said.

She said she usually won’t accept checks either.

“It usually depends on how I feel about that person after I strike up a conversation with them,” she said.

Christie said she has been at garage sales where people will store cash in a shoebox and leave it unattended.

“I will take it over to them and say to keep your eye on it – I could have walked off with it,” she said. “You got to be careful.”

“I cringe every time I see an unattended money box at a yard sale,” said Chris Heiska, who runs and travels to yard sales every weekend from March to October.

Fraud prevention tips

* Use a counterfeit-detecting marking pen on suspicious bills or bills $10 and higher. The pens can be found at most office supply stores.

* Ask for photo identification for check purchases.

* Take a genuine bill and compare color, size and security features to other money.

* Familiarize yourself with and check the security features built into the bills.

* Have more than one person with you at the yard sale.

* Do not allow anyone into your house.

* Carry cash in a fanny pack and store excess cash somewhere safe within the house.

To report counterfeit notes:

* Call local police or the Seattle office of U.S. Secret Service at 206-220-6800.

* Go online to


Heiska said she receives multiple e-mails a week from people visiting her site to tell her stories about getting scammed by elaborate schemes or finding counterfeit bills.

“I always tell people to not take bills over $20,” she said. “About 99 percent of yard sale customers are great, but it’s that 1 percent that you remember.”

Heiska said she created her Web site to help people learn how to have a successful yard sale experience.

Local police say they can’t remember a case of counterfeit bills being used at yard sales, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.

Lynnwood Police Sgt. Sean Doty said he can’t remember a counterfeit bill being reported at a yard sale in Lynnwood, but says it is a possibility.

“I would be more fearful of bad checks,” Doty said. “Just don’t take checks at a garage sale. Do it on a strictly cash basis.”

Doty said most reports of counterfeit bills come from businesses such as restaurants, where people handle money all day and can easily recognize a suspicious bill.

People not familiar with handling money may not know how to catch fake bills, Doty said.

Special Agent Shields said he also recommends comparing suspicious bills to notes known to be authentic.

Shields also said to watch for counterfeit bills during other private transactions such as sales of cars, recreational vehicles and boats.

Evan Caldwell: 425-339-3475;

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