By Greg Gelpi
Not wanting to swallow losses, school cafeteria workers check more than nutritional values these days.
Clayton County schools have seen an influx of counterfeit money, requiring lunchroom workers to check all bills coming through the lunch lines.
Marking all paper money with a special pen to determine if the money is real or fake, Gayle Slagle, the food services manager of Mt. Zion High School, said she has caught five counterfeit bills this school year alone. The mark appears yellow on real money and brown on counterfeit money.
Although counterfeit money is nothing new, she said she has seen an increase this year.
The last counterfeit bill she caught slipped in unnoticed until the cafeteria's money machine noticed that the bill didn't weigh what a bill should weigh.
"It looked good, real good," Slagle said. "Even the coloring was good. Even the copper lettering was good."
Checking each bill slows down the lunch line and weighs on the patience of the students, Slagle said. The person who loses, though, is the person with the counterfeit money.
"That's the hardest part of this," Slagle said. "The one caught with it last loses."
The bad bills have caused cafeterias to adjust, limiting the size of the bills they accept and no longer giving change for large bills.
"A couple of the bills we had this year really didn't look that good, but it was the way they were passed," she said. "The cashiers now don't take anything over a 10."
Slagle laughed, saying that someone brought in a million-dollar bill as a joke.
"There are lots of ways to look at money and tell if it's counterfeit," Slagle said.
The same week that Mt. Zion had a rash of fake money, Lovejoy High School experienced similar problems.
Trudy Wilson, the cashier in the Lovejoy cafeteria, said she caught two or three bills in a couple of days earlier this year.
"We don't accept 20s unless they are pre-approved by the manager," Wilson said. "You can hold (new bills) up and see the faces and the watermarks."
Clayton County Police Capt. Tim Robinson said there have been seven reports of phony money at Lovejoy High in the past three months, and four students were arrested in connection with counterfeit money.
Robinson said that the incidents were reported to the U.S. Secret Service as is customary in cases of counterfeit money.
Special Agent Malcolm Wiley of the Atlanta Field Office of the Secret Service said the prevalence of home computers has created a prevalence of counterfeit money.
"It's certainly something we see on a regular basis across the nation," Wiley said. "Just because the prevalence of home computers almost anyone can do it now. A sixth-grader can do it now. You just need a laptop, a scanner and a printer."
The home computer has given way to the amateur counterfeiter, creating low quality fake money, he said.
Wiley said all counterfeit money in the state ultimately works its way through the Atlanta office. Last year, his office handled $1 million in counterfeit money.
Robinson said most of the time it's easy to tell when a bill is counterfeit, especially from the type of paper, but that one of the bills at Lovejoy was a high quality.
He explained that it is a crime to make fake money and to pass it off as real, but that officers look at criminal intent.