To Ouk Bonath’s trained eye, something about the expression on Benjamin Franklin’s face is just not quite right.
“The mouth is kind of straight,” the cashier at Canadia Bank said as she examined the counterfeit US dollar note on Thursday.
For her, the way the US founding father’s lips fail to turn up ever so slightly on the $100 bill is a giveaway, as is the way the paper crumples in her hand.
Like Ouk Bonath, staff at banks across Phnom Penh have been trained by US officials to identify the minute discrepancies in forged dollar notes, as the US tries to keep counterfeit cash out of Cambodia’s banking system, bank staff said this week.
No one really knows how many fake dollar bills are circulating in Cambodia. But Canadia tends to receive a small handful of fake $100 bills each month, Ouk Bonath said.
The bank stamps the notes twice with an ‘F’ for fraud inside a circle about 0.5-cm wide, then hands them back to the customer who presented them, Chhay You of Canadia’s customer service department said.
“We have no right to seize this money,” he said.
Only the National Bank can stamp ‘counterfeit’ in red across Franklin’s face and keep the bill, he added.
Earlier this week, North Korea was mentioned as a possible source for Cambodia’s fake bills. Charges that the reclusive communist state is involved in dollar forgery are not new.
In a June 19, 2004, report on ‘super dollars,’ or almost perfect dollar forgeries, the British Broadcasting Corporation said experts believe the money is being produced in North Korea and flooded into the system, possibly in an attempt to destabilize the US economy.
“The counterfeiting was all done at government level. We had a special plant for doing it,” a North Korean defector who spent his life counterfeiting dollar bills told the BBC.
The North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh firmly denied on Thursday that North Korea produces the bills.
“We have no unreal $100 notes. That is American hostile policy to our country,” said an embassy official, who declined to be named.
“We have no experience, no material, we have no technicians…to make artificial notes,” he said, adding that forgery is illegal.
The US Embassy does not comment on North Korea, an embassy official said.
But asked about training staff to spot fakes at banks, the official said that all countries are “concerned about the integrity of [their] currency.”
Next week, US officials will train staff from all banks in Siem Reap province on how to detect the notes, said In Channy, Acleda bank general manager. “Without training, we would receive fake notes all the time,” he said.
Fake dollar bills don’t pose a major threat to Cambodia’s economy as long as no one can tell the difference and the bills are accepted by everyone, one banking expert said on condition of anonymity.
“The problem is for the US government,” he said. “For America, and anyone in America, it’s very important that people trust its funds.”