Wednesday, September 5, 2001
Schneider: Sour notes
Despite arguments, writing on currency still viewed as
Tuesday morning began with what seemed like a simple,
Is it, or is it not, OK to write on
U.S. paper currency?
The answer, as you'll soon learn, is
neither simple nor straightforward.
But, first, a word on how the
question became relevant:
In a column last week I told you
about a Web site called wheresgeorge.com that allows those so inclined to track the
travels of their paper money through the serial numbers on the bills.
The system relies on the
participation of a lot of people, so fans of the site are inclined to advertise the Web
site by writing its name on the bills they send off into the world.
In my original column, I reminded
readers of something I thought I had learned in elementary school - that it's illegal to
deface (i.e. write on) U.S. currency.
Thanks, again, to the Internet, the
weekend brought me a batch of irate e-mails. Wheresgeorge.com fans from West Covina,
Calif., to Lower Marion, Penn., upbraided me for suggesting they were lawbreakers. They
argued that it's illegal to write on currency only if that writing makes the bills
By the book
Many of the writers cited the actual
federal statute, which is vague, to say the least.
The pertinent passage: "Whoever
mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or
does any other thing to any -- bill -- with intent to render such bill unfit to be
reissued, shall be fined -- or imprisoned ..."
Instead of struggling with nuances
and interpretations, I decided to go straight to the folks responsible for enforcing the
I started out at the U.S. Bureau of
Engraving in Washington, D.C. Spokeswoman Claudia Dickens said writing on currency is NOT
illegal, as long as it doesn't "render the bill unfit (for circulation)."
However, Dickens recommended that if
I wanted a definitive answer, I should talk to somebody at the U.S. Secret Service.
Agent Jim Mackin, also in D.C, told
me that I was supposed to deal with the Detroit office of the Secret Service, but he
answered my question anyway.
Getting down to specifics, he said
the Secret Service was well aware of the wheresgeorge.com phenomenon. The agency's
official position is that writing the Web site's name on a bill was, indeed, a violation
of the law.
He said the folks who run the Web
site had been informed of that.
Following Mackin's suggestion to
call Detroit, I reached a Secret Service agent who said the statute is never enforced. He
insisted on anonymity.
When I asked to speak to somebody
less secretive, I got agent Joe Viviano, who put his own spin on the issue:
"If Grandma and Grandpa write
'Happy Birthday, Tommy' in the margin of a $50 bill with an ink pen, nobody's going to go
after them," Viviano said. "But if they use a black magic marker and write in
big letters across the face of the bill, that's another story."
Viviano said he interprets the
statute to mean that, technically, writing anything anywhere on a bill is a violation of
What do you think? Call John Schneider at
377-1175, send a fax to 377-1298 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, phone
number, city, town or township.