Episode 781: The Money Fixers

Jun 30, 2017
Originally published on October 5, 2017 3:55 pm

When your life savings gets torched in a house fire or put through a shredder, there is a roomful of people who may be able to help: a team of specialists with the legal authority and technical skills to say whether messed up money lives or dies. They are the people of the Mutilated Currency Division.

On this episode, we go inside the Mutilated Currency Division. We find stories of a cow with an appetite for currency, a hundred thousand dollars stuffed into a mailbox, and a court battle between the government and millions of dollars in mutilated money

Music: "Burn in Me" and "Firmament." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

Dan Deming lives on a farm in Wisconsin.

DAN DEMING: I've got a little bit of woods. I've got about a 4-acre woods. The apple trees - there's a couple left. But they're - you know, they were over a hundred years old, so they're starting to die off.

ELIZABETH KULAS, HOST:

His great-grandfather bought it in the early '60s from a local eccentric. That man's name was Walt Mallory (ph). And there were all these stories about how Walt hated spending money.

D. DEMING: He was going to get married one time, but he would sit and weigh out the food to see how much it would cost to have a wife.

(LAUGHTER)

D. DEMING: So he would put out a portion of food for himself, and then he would weigh out a portion of food for his to-be wife. He decided that that wasn't - it wasn't worth it.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: A true romantic, huh?

D. DEMING: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: Walt Mallory stayed a bachelor all his life.

KULAS: Surprise.

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) He worked hard, never spent any money. And when Dan Deming's family bought the place in the '60s, it came with this legend attached.

D. DEMING: The legend was that he died alone and there had to be money buried here somewhere.

KULAS: And for years, Dan's family tried to find it. There is actually spots in the basement here where my grandfather tried to bust up the concrete to find money.

GOLDSTEIN: He used a sledgehammer - didn't find anything. At one point, Dan himself got a metal detector as a birthday present. He didn't find anything either.

KULAS: And then years later, Dan was knocking down this 100-year-old chicken coop out in the yard.

D. DEMING: And lo and behold, I take apart this one wall, and I didn't think anything of it. I turned around with my skid loader. Came back, and I saw a box tipped over with a bunch of pieces of paper on the ground. And it - the first thing that popped in my head was, my grandpa wasn't - it wasn't a story. It was real. Walt's money, I found it.

GOLDSTEIN: He starts running to the house to tell his wife, Terri.

D. DEMING: The way I was running to the house, she thought, oh, no, he got hurt - kind of running and screaming. I don't remember what I said. What did I say, Terri? I don't remember.

TERRI DEMING: Look what I found!

D. DEMING: Oh, look what I found. Yeah (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: It was an old metal box, and it was full of money. But...

D. DEMING: A lot of it was rotted, and moisture had eaten away and it, molded. And some of it was just so degraded you couldn't even tell. I mean, some was just like rotten paper.

KULAS: So Dan took this box of moldy bills into his bank, and he said, I want to deposit it. And the bank said, we're not just going to give you fresh money. But we do know someone who might, so Dan gave it to them.

D. DEMING: They gave me a receipt that said - well, this right here - silver box with mutilated currency, amount not known, it says on the receipt they gave me. The bank sent Dan's money back to the place it came from, to the U.S. Treasury, to a team of specialists with the legal authority to say whether moldy chicken coop money lives or dies.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS MICHAEL HILL, VON HEMINGWAY AND WILLIAM RIDDIM'S "BURN IN ME")

KULAS: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Elizabeth Kulas.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. When your life savings gets torched in a house fire or put through a shredder, there is a roomful of people who may be able to help, the Mutilated Currency Division. It is like the customer service department for the dollar bill.

KULAS: Today on the show, we go inside the Mutilated Currency Division - inside that room where they put broken money back together.

GOLDSTEIN: And they ward off counterfeiters, money launderers and that one kid in third grade who swore - who swore - he could tear a bill in half and double his money.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICHOLAS MICHAEL HILL, VON HEMINGWAY AND WILLIAM RIDDIM'S "BURN IN ME")

GOLDSTEIN: So what does this sign say here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mutilated Currency Division. There he is.

GOLDSTEIN: Mutilated Currency Division.

KULAS: The Mutilated Currency Division works out of an office inside the Bureau of Engraving and Printing...

GOLDSTEIN: That is the bureau that prints the country's money.

KULAS: ...Part of the Treasury. And they work out of this big stone building a few blocks from the Washington Monument.

GOLDSTEIN: Every day, the Mutilated Currency Division gets a hundred or more packages like the one with Dan's money. Some of it is burned. Some of it is torn. Some of it is waterlogged. They get more than $30 million a year.

KULAS: The packages make their way to this big open room. There's about a dozen wooden desks in there, lots of light.

GOLDSTEIN: And sitting at these desks are government employees called currency examiners. About eight of them are going through packages of messed up money piece by piece.

KULAS: We talked to one of them. His name is Kolan Cotton (ph).

GOLDSTEIN: Tell me about what - what is this?

KOLAN COTTON: This currency is actually burned.

KULAS: Burned in a house fire.

COTTON: They're claiming a hundred thousand dollars.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm sorry. They claim it's how much?

COTTON: One hundred thousand dollars.

GOLDSTEIN: And it - this - is this box just a priority mailbox here? Is this priority mailbox where the money came in?

COTTON: Yes.

KULAS: Someone sent you a hundred thousand dollars in priority mailbox?

COTTON: Yes. Yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Kolan says the money also looks like it got wet, probably, when the firemen put out the fire.

So - and you have here a stack - are these hundreds?

COTTON: Yes.

GOLDSTEIN: You can barely tell, right? It's just like black, ashy. I just - I don't even know where I saw the hundred. On this bill, you can't see it at all.

COTTON: Yes.

GOLDSTEIN: But there it is. In the corner, you can see 100.

KULAS: These bills are like stuck together in a black-colored brick. Looking at them, you just have no idea where you would start to work out what's there. And before we visited the office, I was expecting some kind of high-tech answer to this question, you know, like a polarized light microscope or like some kind of laser.

GOLDSTEIN: A spectrometer - I kept thinking spectrometer.

KULAS: Sure, spectrometer. Exactly.

GOLDSTEIN: So what Kolan pulls out to work through this - this brick is a chisel.

KULAS: A chisel.

GOLDSTEIN: Just like a chisel could be made in 1850. It's just like metal on the front with the wood handle. And he actually uses the handle. He takes the wooden handle and starts rolling it back and forth with his palm over the desk.

COTTON: It's actually - rolling it actually makes the currency loose.

GOLDSTEIN: OK.

COTTON: So.

GOLDSTEIN: You really - I mean, it's so burned that, like, as your rolling, black ash is coming off it. Like, the money is disintegrating.

COTTON: Yes.

KULAS: But it's not all disintegrating. Like, this brick is loosening up into individual bills. They are coming up hard. And on almost all of those bills, you can start to make out like a little bit on the right hand side. So he cuts off the right hand side of the bills and he paperclips them to index cards.

GOLDSTEIN: By the way, for your money to count as good money, you need to either send in more than 50 percent of a bill. Or if you send in less than 50 percent, you need to convince the examiner that the rest of the bill was completely destroyed.

KULAS: So Kolan is just going to count up all of these fragments, do a little paperwork. And the person who sent in the burned money, they will get reimbursed for the value of every bill that Kolan could identify.

GOLDSTEIN: So what's going on in this room is amazing. It's actually a free service provided by the government. And you can either say, wow, that's great. Thanks, government. Or you could say, wait, if somebody has $100,000 in their house and their house burned down, like, why should I as a taxpayer pay government workers to sort through the money? I mean, keep your money in a bank if you don't want it to burn down in a house fire. So we asked about this. And they told us basically, look, Congress asked us to start doing this a long time ago. They give us the money to do it every year, so we do it. And, look, it's a public service.

KULAS: You could also say the dollar, like the literal dollar bill, it's not just this flimsy piece of paper. It's an IOU from the U.S. government. And this office is a way of showing the world, like, that the government stands behind the dollar of saying we will be there when bad things happen to good bills.

GOLDSTEIN: And by we, the government means the people in this room.

KULAS: We go to the desk next to Kolan's - more messed up money.

GOLDSTEIN: This money back here just, like, if I saw it, I wouldn't even know it was money. I would just think, like, it's something I'm going to have to scrape off my shoe.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That's a different case because it's wet, though. And I got the fan on it so it can dry it up.

GOLDSTEIN: Tiny little desk fan about the size of - I don't even know. What is this? Saucer?

KULAS: Saucer size?

GOLDSTEIN: High-tech solution for what do you do with wet money, right?

KULAS: A few desks over, another examiner has, like, pasted up a letter that someone sent in with their money.

GOLDSTEIN: I've enclosed mutilated currency in the amount of $20,000 - 1,000 $20 bills. Due to break-ins in my neighborhood, I took precaution and hid the cash in our backyard. The currency was placed in a plastic bag. I retrieved the currency a few days ago and found out they have been mutilated. Rain and flooding in our backyard had caused the currency to be mutilated. Twenty thousand dollars...

GAO FREEMAN: Yes.

GOLDSTEIN: ...And it's a mess.

KULAS: The examiner going through this money is Gao Freeman.

FREEMAN: G-A-O. It's pronounced Gao.

GOLDSTEIN: One second, he's telling us his name. The next...

KULAS: Oh, he just cut the corner off a whole bunch of $20 bills. That makes me nervous, Gao.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: And then he's, like, slowly prying apart every single bill in the stack.

FREEMAN: Yes, we have to identify each note because, sometimes, there are mid-way counterfeits.

GOLDSTEIN: Aha. So some of them are real, but they might sneak a few counterfeits in there.

FREEMAN: Right. Right.

LYDIA WASHINGTON: But we're not talking about counterfeit currency.

GOLDSTEIN: OK.

FREEMAN: OK.

GOLDSTEIN: OK.

KULAS: That off-mic voice belongs to Lydia Washington. She's the press person for this office. And she's telling us they don't talk about counterfeit currency. There were a few other times that we asked about shady circumstances, stuff that had come through the office. She shut us down every time.

GOLDSTEIN: But, I mean, come on. You have people sending in $100,000 in cash in priority mail boxes, like, mysteriously destroyed in a fire. Obviously, there is going to be some sketchy behavior here.

KULAS: My mind went right there. Where else was it supposed to go?

GOLDSTEIN: Even though they wouldn't talk about it at the office, fortunately for us, once in a while, it does pop out into the public record. Kulas, you actually found this one case that went to court a few years ago. Read the name.

KULAS: OK, here it is. United States of America v. $4,245,800 In Mutilated Currency.

GOLDSTEIN: The full force of the United States government is going to court to sue a pile of burned-up, torn-up, waterlogged money because that is what prosecutors do when they want to seize something. They sue the thing. In this particular case, a bank in Argentina was sending in millions of mutilated dollars. Now, people do use American dollars a lot in Argentina. But the examiners in this room still thought something suspicious was going on. So they passed the case to federal prosecutors, who agreed. They thought maybe it was money laundering. Maybe it was criminal activity. So they went to court.

KULAS: There was $200,000 worth of bills, where two parts of the same bill were sent in in different packages.

GOLDSTEIN: Trying to double their money.

KULAS: Right. And the government seized that $200,000.

GOLDSTEIN: Sorry, random kid from third grade. Your scheme to double your money did not work.

KULAS: The other $4 million, though - like, most of that money - it went back to that bank in Argentina.

GOLDSTEIN: Cases from this office do not wind up in court very often and a lot of them do seem just like honest accidents.

KULAS: For example, one of the examiners, Sharon Williams - she told us about a case that she got last year. It was a man with Alzheimer's who had put his life savings through a shredder - $350,000 shredded.

SHARON WILLIAMS: It was in pieces - a lot of pieces.

GOLDSTEIN: It's literally been put through a machine that's supposed to make it impossible to put it back together.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

GOLDSTEIN: And your job is to put it back together.

WILLIAMS: Put it back together. And my heart goes out for the people.

GOLDSTEIN: Sharon specializes in cases where she has to put torn-up money back together.

WILLIAMS: I love it because I like doing puzzles.

KULAS: When we meet her, she's going through this big, clear plastic bag of torn-up bills. She says the D.C. subway sent it in. The bills kind of get torn going into the ticket machines and stuff like that.

WILLIAMS: Say, for instance, right here. It might have to go here - might go here.

KULAS: Is it a match?

GOLDSTEIN: Wrong side.

KULAS: No, wrong side.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

KULAS: Before we left, we talked to Eric Walsh. He's the manager here. He's worked in the office for 13 years. We got him to give us some of the greatest hits.

ERIC WALSH: We had a farmer who - his cow ate his wallet. We always encourage to mail it in in its original package. So he actually shipped in the cow's stomach containing the wallet. So...

GOLDSTEIN: What happened to the cow?

WALSH: The cow did not make it.

KULAS: I thought that cows had four stomachs.

WALSH: We get a lot of animal-chewed currency. So, sometimes, they're actually processed through the system before we get them.

KULAS: By which you mean (laughter)...

GOLDSTEIN: Do people send in animal poop with money in it?

WALSH: They do. We do return those and have them please wash them off before they send it to us. But...

GOLDSTEIN: So that's one, like, refused. Return to sender.

WALSH: Right (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: What's the most money anybody ever sent in?

WALSH: An attempted armored car robbery where they attempted to blow off the back doors of the car, and it incinerated about $2 million inside.

GOLDSTEIN: Two million's the most. What's the least?

WALSH: A dollar.

GOLDSTEIN: One dollar.

WALSH: One dollar.

GOLDSTEIN: News you can use - if your money gets wet, do not put it in the microwave.

WALSH: There's a little metallic in the strips, and it will burst into flames (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: If I microwave my money, it'll burst into flames?

WALSH: Yes. So please don't try that.

GOLDSTEIN: That totally makes me want to put money in the microwave.

KULAS: One last piece of advice.

WALSH: Please include your name and address when you send stuff in, too.

KULAS: No. No.

WALSH: You'd be surprised at how many cases we get where there's no correspondence or no nothing. And, unfortunately, we can't send out a check unless we know who the money's going to.

GOLDSTEIN: So somebody will send you - whatever - a thousand dollars. And they won't put a return address?

WALSH: Right.

GOLDSTEIN: And that was it. We left not long after that.

KULAS: Interesting. Thank you.

WALSH: Oh, yeah. Thanks.

GOLDSTEIN: Lovely to meet you.

KULAS: Thanks again.

GOLDSTEIN: But what about Dan Deming? What about that box of mutilated money he pulled out of the chicken coop?

D. DEMING: They gave me a receipt that said - it's right here - silverbacks with mutilated currency - amount not known it says on the receipt they gave me.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. And then what happened?

D. DEMING: It was probably almost exactly a year later that I got a letter from the bank. And it went into my account. And it was 3,300-some dollars. I thought, wow. You know, I was hoping it would be more. I was a little disappointed. So - but, you know, it's always good to get money. It was happy but still eh, you know?

GOLDSTEIN: Back in the '30s, when Walt Mylrea first buried that money, you could buy a house for $3,000. When Dan's grandparents were living in the house in the '60s, you could buy a new car. Dan told us he actually kind of wishes his grandparents had found the money back then. It would've been worth so much more to them.

KULAS: What'd you do with it? What'd you do with the money?

WALSH: The money I put - I already owed money on the new shed I was building. So it was already spent (laughter).

GOLDSTEIN: Kulas, you have one last amazing little anecdote about the mutilated coin division, which is a whole other division. And we will have that after the credits.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE SHILLINGFORD, NICHOLAS EVANS AND VANCE WESTLAKE'S "FIRMAMENT")

GOLDSTEIN: Doing this story made me want to do more on money laundering, on the sort of sketchy side of this world. So if you are listening, and you have a great money laundering story, tell us what it is. You can email us at planetmoney@npr.org. Or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter.

KULAS: Thanks today go to Matthew Harrington (ph), Zia Faruqi, Arvind Lowell (ph) and Sidney Rocke.

GOLDSTEIN: Our show today was produced by Nick Fountain. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. And the supervising producer of Planet Money is Alex Goldmark.

KULAS: Also, NPR has a new podcast. We want to tell you about it. It's hosted by Sam Sanders. He was the co-host of NPR's Politics podcast. He's got this new show. It's called It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders. Check it out on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Elizabeth Kulas.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening. OK, Kulas. Mutilated coins - go.

KULAS: So you used to be able to send mutilated coins to the U.S. Mint. They'd give you $19.84 for a pound of mutilated coins. And then some metal recycling companies sent in $5.5 million worth of coins. They said these coins come from cars that have been sent from the U.S. to China for scrap metal. And when these cars are in China, they scrape them out, and they collect coins, send them back to the U.S.

Now, a bunch of things about this just seemed off. The case went to court. Prosecutors said more half dollars had been submitted from China in the last 10 years than had ever been manufactured by the mint, period. And this one is my favorite. The prosecutors - they looked at the number of cars that were exported to China, and they looked at the number of mutilated coins that had come back into the U.S. for redemption. And they did the math.

And when they worked it out, they said each vehicle being sent to China as scrap would have to contain $900 in loose change - $900. The defense disputed these numbers. The case was eventually settled. The mint suspended that coin redemption program in 2015. No word so far on whether it's ever coming back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.