Dollar dealers fear his nameIf you want to launder some counterfeit money in Korea ― especially U.S. dollars ― pray that you don’t meet Suh Tae-suk.
In the blink of an eye, he can pinpoint every fake bill in town, and tell you exactly what’s wrong with it for added measure.
“Twenty-five seconds is all I need. That’s it,” says Mr. Suh, who, quite appropriately, works in Korea Exchange Bank’s counterfeit money detection unit.
Twenty-five seconds is it for Mr. Suh. But a novice would need at least twice that amount of time to detect one or more flaws.
Such eagle eyes do not develop overnight. It takes about nine months to get the feel of the job, Mr. Suh says, and hold to the one-minute examination rule that is necessary to wade through endless bundles of money each day.
In many cases, Korean businessmen who are paid in cash from other countries unknowingly bring counterfeit money to the peninsula. In East Asia, China and Thailand are commonly cited hubs for distributing counterfeit bills, says Mr. Suh, and what’s circulated in the economy there often finds its way to Korea in due time.
An average day for Mr. Suh involves inspecting 12,000 bills. For the bank’s counterfeit detection unit, each bill counts as a single unit that must be cleared, regardless of the denomination.
To help weed out funny money, Mr. Suh uses a counterfeit detector. But he explains that the machine merely serves as a first line of defense because its strength is limited to determining the iron content of the paper and ink.
The final check, for color and other points, is strictly a manual job. “You need a trained eye to determine whether the bill has the right colors,” says the master bill sleuth, adding that a certain indefinable visual focus is necessary.
“There is a certain look, you see,” he says.
It is 4:40 p.m. Inside an isolated office on the second floor of Korea Exchange Bank’s headquarters in downtown Seoul, Mr. Suh has almost wrapped up his daily workload. Like a casino dealer, he holds a bundle of $100 U.S. bills in his left hand (about 95 percent of all counterfeits are $100 denominations).
Multiple faces of Benjamin Franklin peer up at him, as he deals the bills with his right hand. Halfway through, he pauses suddenly and examines one bill that has just passed through his fingers.
Rubbing the bill between his thumb and index finger, he tries to feel the note’s texture. Then he snaps the bill between his fingers, attentive to the sound. Finally, he reaches for a loupe, an eight-power magnifier. Then, smiling and shaking his head, he says, “I think I’m getting old. For a moment, I thought I had one.” Pointing to some twisted sections of paper, he continues, “With this kind of bill, it’s hard to get a feeling from your fingertips and it’s hard to identify the printing at a glance.”
There are three identifying points to look for on a bill, Mr. Suh explains: the color, the quality of the paper and the precision of the printing.
His career at the bank began 34 years ago. Before joining it, he served as a KATUSA, a Korean augmentee to the U.S. Army, in the accounting department of the U.S. 7th Infantry Division, which was headquartered at the time in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi province.
There he handled basic accounting duties and also learned how to identify fake money.
Getting from the U.S. military to the Korea Exchange Bank was no easy job, he says. After his discharge in 1967, he applied for a job at the bank, which at the time was a unit of the Bank of Korea that dealt with foreign currency. The bank had no opening in the foreign exchange department, it said, for a high-school graduate like Mr. Suh. The only occupation the bank thought was suitable for him was a job dealing with securities.
Finally, after two years of harassing and begging the bank, he was offered a job as a clerk in the foreign exchange department on a contract basis. In 1983, he finally landed a full-time, permanent job at the bank.
That change of status came about in part because of his achievement in November 1981, when he spotted $2 million in counterfeit money. He still vividly remembers the day that brought him fame at the bank. “I went to the customs office at the airport, and lifted one of the five bundles that each contained $400,000 in currency. But the moment I lifted that bag, I thought it a little too light to hold that amount,” Mr. Suh recalls.
Taking all five bags to the bank, he weighed the same amount of money in bills that had been checked, and discovered that the new bags weighed only 15 kilograms (33 pounds), a good 5 kilograms short of the usual weight.
That’s when he decided not to open any of the other bags and told his supervisor that they might have received counterfeit money.
In the end, the money was returned to the U.S. bank that sent it. U.S. officials came to investigate the case; it turned out that the money courier in the United States that transported the money from the bank to the airport had switched the bills with counterfeit money. Organized crime was involved, Mr. Suh says.
Mr. Suh’s expertise earned him a commendation by the government in 1999, and he appears in court as an expert witness on counterfeit currency four or five times a year.
There are no consolidated data on the amount of counterfeit money that floats in and out of the country, to Mr. Suh’s dismay. Shaking his head, he says that the lack of expertise and data here has made the country a safe haven for money laundering ― perhaps not as wide-open as China or Thailand, but nevertheless an easy target.
“During the Asian economic crisis, we saw a big inflow of counterfeit money,” says Mr. Suh, explaining that people who wanted to make quick gains by exchanging foreign currency for the local currency were attracted by the depreciation of the won. It went from the 800-per-dollar range before the financial crisis to as low as 1,800 to the dollar at its nadir.
Mr. Suh claims that the final check to identify counterfeit money is a secret code engraved into a bill with special ink and technology that is supposed to be known only to the U.S. government.
Mr. Suh says that he is the only person in the country who knows where to look for this secret code which is so carefully guarded by the U.S. government. So how did a foreigner like Mr. Suh gain this knowledge?
The deputy manager says that he learned the art from a superior in the U.S. Army, who thought it necessary to teach him the skill because he handled all matters involving money.
“With a special optical laser device, I look at a certain location for a secret code,” says Mr. Suh.
Mr. Suh tentatively plans to retire in August, but says he is still trying to decide whether to stay on a bit longer. He says he knows that eventually, he has to pass on the secret of identifying the code, a responsibility he says is a big one.
“At the end of the day, my knowledge has to be transferred, but I haven’t made up my mind yet about whom to select as my successor. Whoever that person is, he has to have exceptional moral standards,” the master counterfeit-chaser says.
by Brian Lee