I boarded a train. There were few people in the car I entered, so I specifically noticed the shabbily dressed man at the end of the car. He was by himself, and I was aware of him noticing me. But he said nothing and made no move, so I quickly forgot about him. After a few minutes, I glanced at the floor and saw a $50 bill about halfway between my seat and his. It was near the doorway where I had entered and it seemed impossible that it could have been there when I got on. This all struck me as an obvious set-up, so I acted in a very calculated manner. I made no sudden move; I casually stood up and walked over to where the bill was, without looking down, and stepped squarely onto it. The man still said nothing and did nothing, so I quickly and smoothly bent down, pulled the bill from beneath my shoe, stuffed it into my pocket, and returned to my seat, all in one motion. I exited the train at Belmont Avenue and noted that the man did not follow me, so I stood on the platform and examined the bill closely. It was, to my eye, an obvious fake. It was a color photocopy of a real $50 bill. I was not the least bit surprised.
There is an old scam that you may or may not know about, so I will describe what I think was going on here. What was supposed to happen went something like this: I would notice the bill; the man would see me notice the bill; he would make a move for it just as I made my move for it; we would have “both spotted it at the same time,” so the man would generously offer to split the money with me 50/50, rather than claim sole ownership of the bill for himself. But he would not have any change on him; it would be up to me to pay him $25 out of my pocket while I kept the bogus $50 for myself. Fortunately for me, I thought of that scam the moment I laid eyes on the bill. The other bit of good fortune for me is that I went through a period in my childhood where I read every book I could find on counterfeiting, and while I wouldn’t call myself any sort of an expert, I’m probably better at spotting fakes than most people. So all in all, I was quite the wrong person on whom to attempt this particular scam. I don’t want to sound too cocky here; I’m sure there are any number of scams for which I would be as apt a mark as anyone, but not this scam on this day.
Upon reflection, the man probably had a pocket full of photocopied $50 bills, and this might have been a regular act for him. Furthermore, I would speculate that my body language of how I approached the bill was probably a tip-off that I wasn’t an apt mark. I have to say that the man was so nondescript that I wouldn’t have recognized him if I’d come face to face with him the next day. And in case you’re wondering – I ripped the fake $50 into tiny pieces and dropped them into a trash can right there on the Belmont Avenue platform. First of all, I saw no reason to walk around town carrying a counterfeit bill with me since being in possession of fake currency is, you know, illegal and all. Second of all, I prefer to deal in illusions of the mind rather than illusions of material objects. Finally, as I’ve mentioned, I could never pick this guy out a lineup anyway, so it seemed that this particular adventure had come to an end. I suppose I could have gone to the police with what I had, and part of me still wonders whether I should have, but it seemed to me at the time that it would be a lot of bother, time, and paperwork on my part in exchange for a very doubtful benefit for society. And that’s ultimately why I’m writing this today – the one thing I can do is let people know that this ancient scam is still being plied out there, and the fact is that it probably still works from time to time.
By the way, should you ever find yourself in that situation and you need an exit strategy, you could simply tear the bill in two and give one of the two halves to the other person. Legally speaking, that half a bill is worth 50% of the face value as long as one complete serial number is showing (that is, if it's your lucky day and it's not a fake!). So you’d have evenly divided the bill of dubious origin without opening your wallet. Just remember that old saying that if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t true! Sorry to close with such a hoary cliché, but it fits.
Correction! I received a message from wcitymike pointing out that I was incorrect in my statements about the value of a bill that has been torn in two. Turns out there is a whole set of rules and guidelines for determining the value of a piece of damaged currency. If you want the details, wcitymike provided the following link to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing web site, and you can read all about it by clicking right here. Thank you Mike!