A genuine 1,000-baht Thai currency note.
Photo copyright © by Richard S. Ehrlich
Counterfeit Money is a Genuine Worry for Thailand
by Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- In this mimic-happy land brimming with counterfeit designer goods, illegal software, duplicated movies, sham medicine, forged passports, and other professionally faked items, genuine fear has suddenly appeared.
People have become nervous and insecure because counterfeiters are churning out bogus Thai currency.
Toothless grannies selling fresh papayas, grilled mackerel and other Thai favorites in streetside markets, are rejecting customers who try to pay with a 1,000-baht note, which is Thailand's biggest paper currency, worth about 30 U.S. dollars.
Vendors are examining each 1,000-baht with squinty-eyed scrutiny, attracting gossipers who excitedly offer opinions about the money's possible validity.
Shopkeepers in sparkling, air-conditioned malls, meanwhile, smile and coyly pretend not to have enough change to break a 1,000, hardly caring if they lose a sale.
Moody taxi-drivers groan, wriggle and recoil in horror if a passenger presents the gray paper rectangle after a ride through town.
This Buddhist-majority, Southeast Asian nation has long enjoyed, and suffered, bountiful displays of counterfeit goods publicly on sale, while nonchalant police stroll by.
On crowded Khao San Road, where most international backpackers stay, street stalls offer counterfeit identification cards from America and Europe, including U.N. agencies, Interpol, the F.B.I., media establishments, universities, and foreign airports, which buyers can flash to try and trick officials or breach security.
Thai police have said that the documents are often not considered illegal within Thailand, simply because the copies are not real.
But if a person uses fake papers in this country, they can be busted for a fraudulent act.
Police occasionally raid shops and factories selling inexpensive, counterfeit commercial items, but usually only in response to a corporation's complaint.
But when counterfeit 1,000-baht notes recently began showing up in a mysterious burst of stealth distribution, the prime minister sounded the alarm.
"Violators of the law must be prosecuted, and authorities must have clear guidelines on how to examine notes," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned on Tuesday (December 23).
"All this has to be implemented immediately, otherwise it will adversely affect confidence."
During 2008, Thailand's central bank seized 11,158 fake 1,000- baht notes, 61 percent of all counterfeit currency discovered this year.
Currency counterfeiters face possible life imprisonment, while people who knowingly use fake money could receive up to 15 years in jail.
Staff from the Bank of Thailand have waded into Bangkok's markets, to show vendors how to detect fake banknotes.
Lessons are also being broadcast nationwide on television, showing stern officials pointing to large illustrations of real and fake currency, while people peer through magnifying glasses and police listen to lectures.
The informal training will be expanded to Thailand's border zones, where huge amounts of money changes hands daily during overland trade with Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.
People are being told to examine suspect 1,000-baht notes under an ultra-violet fluorescent light, to see its glowing security features, though most people lack the "black-light" device.
Alternatively, people can feel the embossed words, "Thai government," printed in Thai script, on authentic banknotes but the subtle sensation is difficult to detect for people with calloused fingers, or on worn bills.
Easiest is to angle the paper in any light, to see a watermark silhouette of Thailand's current King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The monarch's bespectacled portrait is recognizable by most Thais, and can also be compared to his engraved youthful face which comprises one-fourth of the currency's front.
"There should not be panic at the recent news of rampant forgery of 1,000-baht banknotes, because forgeries can be avoided through simple measures," The Nation newspaper said on Wednesday (December 24).
Finance officials are insisting that all banks and ATM machines are immune from the danger.
"Banks have effective systems to detect counterfeit notes," said the Thai Bankers' Association Secretary-General, Thawatchai Yongkittikul. "Our automatic machines can distinguish the fake from the authentic.
"Any panic may upset the economy. Although the number of fake banknotes is higher now, the increase is not at a worrying level."
Text and photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich
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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!" a non-fiction book of investigative journalism.
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