NEWS

Fears of fake euros

At Theodoros Tzamalas’s souvenir shop, there’s a new step in any sale: the colorful euro bills are scanned by an ultraviolet detector to look for fakes. «There’s been a lot of talk about counterfeit money,» the 73-year-old store owner said. «I was worried so I bought this machine.» He’s not alone in Greece, the only member of the eurozone bordering the counterfeiting centers of the Balkans. Since the launch of the euro 18 months ago, Greece has emerged as one of the favored routes of counterfeiters to try to pass euro bills. Now, even modest merchants – from kebab stalls to newspaper kiosks – are installing detectors to highlight watermarks and fluorescent fibers. Also selling well are pens with UV bulbs on the tip and highlighters that pick out the fluorescent lines in the bills. Police say counterfeiters – many based in neighboring Bulgaria – have grown increasingly skilled and bold in recent months, hoping to cash in on the European Union’s strong new common currency and vanishing border controls between EU members. A fake bill that slips into Greece, a major European tourist destination, can easily wind up in another EU country. Gangs this year began regularly copying 200-euro bills and bringing them to northern Greece, police said. The European Central Bank, which issues the EU’s common currency, said in January that the quality of counterfeit euros so far has been poor and easy to detect. But bank officials also warn the quality of euro forgeries has been improving. Stratos Kyriakakis, head of the criminal laboratories of the Greek police, said the wide availability of scanners and high-quality inkjet printers poses a challenge. Counterfeiters can produce replica watermarks, holograms and security threads that stand up to casual examination. They even have paper with a near-genuine feel, he said. But they have not duplicated the color-shifting ink or raised surface on euro notes, Greek officials say. «We need better cooperation with authorities in neighboring countries,» Kyriakakis said. «They face the problem because the euro is used in these countries as a trading currency.» Seizures of fake euro notes have become common in Greece, especially in areas close to the country’s northern borders. In November, authorities in Thessaloniki arrested three Bulgarian men allegedly caught with 400 counterfeit 50-euro notes, and in May they seized an equal number of 200-euro notes, arresting one Bulgarian. In June, police near Thessaloniki arrested an Albanian man accused of transporting 280 counterfeit 50-euro bills. A senior Greek law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said counterfeit notes similar to the batch seized in May have been found in other EU countries. «I do believe there is an organized operation in Bulgaria which is bringing forged notes into this country,» said Christos Radopoulos, head of Thessaloniki’s crime squad. The European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office is also worried about the rise of Balkan forgery gangs and is organizing a seminar on counterfeiting in October in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. Radopoulos cautioned that «it is possible that Greece is being used to distribute counterfeit money to other EU countries.» Matian Doufeta, who runs an Athens clothing store, isn’t taking any chances. «I bought a highlighter for 7 euros when I heard there were fake notes on the market. I don’t want to get into trouble,» she said. «If I hand in a fake note, maybe I’ll get arrested.»