By C.J. Barbre

When we think of the Secret Service, it's usually in the context of protecting the President or important foreign dignitaries, but its original purpose was to suppress counterfeit currency that surfaced after the Civil War back in 1865.

The Secret Service didn't get into the protection business until 1901, after the assassination of President William McKinley.

Secret Service Agent Rob Holman, who works out of Fresno, spoke at the White Collar Crime Forum on Nov. 9 at the Visalia Holiday Inn.

"The majority of our time is spent investigating financial crime cases to do with interstate commerce, and the Internet is interstate." Holman said the Secret Service has hired hundreds of new agents to fight electronic financial crimes in the new millennium and has set up 13 electronic crime tasks forces across the country. He said the attraction for the criminally minded is that "start up costs are low while potential profits are high."

Holman had a PowerPoint presentation where he showed a waiter using a pocket skimmer, an electronic device that fits easily in the palm of one's hand, so the waiter was able to electronically read all the pertinent information on credit cards. He said credit card information sells at $100 per card to the bad guys, so if the waiter gets 15 cards a night, he can pocket $1,500. Then the criminals make counterfeit cards, or just shop on the Internet and have goods sent to a Mailboxes, Etc. essentially an untraceable type of address.

Once a business is recognized as a "point of compromise," they lose their credit card-taking ability, Holman said. "It may be a single employee we come and check. Sometimes it's the whole business where everyone's involved."

The scams are endless. Holman said one of their cases involved student loans. He said credit information given by people who went to purchase cars was used by others to illegally secure student loans, or financial fraud of the government.

Desktop publishing has become sophisticated enough that Holman said "counterfeit fictitious instruments" can easily be done with a computer and a color laser copier. Yes, the Treasury Department has been adding colors to currency, last year the $20 bill and this year the $50, but many are still fooled. He said a local counterfeiting scam was used on florists, where a guy would come in with a counterfeit $100 bill and ask for a dozen roses, explaining that he had lost a bundle at the casino and didn't dare go home without a peace offering. But what he was actually doing was trading the phony $100 bill for four good $20s. "The florists broke the case," he said, by communicating the problem with other shops. "Networking is very important."

And if you're wondering how the bad guys get hold of fake credit cards, they simply make them with a thermal printer that can print any image on a blank card. It's not illegal to own a thermal printer. Naturally it is illegal to use it for fraud. Holman said the criminally intended can set up shop for under $2,000, less if it is used equipment. Or a printer can be leased for as little as $250. That could be the high end. Google brought up 1.7 million sites on thermal printers in less than a half second (0.29).

And back to that original purpose of the Secret Service, uncovering counterfeiting. Holman said, "As the holidays approach, beware of counterfeits. We get $15,000-$20,000 a week just in the Central Valley. He said they busted an operation in Hanford last year that had circulated more than $100,000 in counterfeit bills. Although they have beefed up operations, Holman said, "The Secret Service only has four agents from Modesto to Bakersfield and I-5 to Nevada, so I probably won't arrest anyone." He said victims should contact local police. There is, however, a local 24-hour hotline at (559) 487-5204. "We would much rather get a call. We can walk you through the steps to determine if the [instrument] is authentic."

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