Four men have been charged with serious counterfeiting charges after an investigation busted a multi-million dollar scheme that spanned the globe.
The men are accused of running more than $1.5 million counterfeit American bills from Uganda. The high-quality $20, $50, and $100 bills were made in Uganda and then sold on underground, illicit websites (sometimes known as the “Dark Web”). The bills have been found in Florida, Minnesota, Texas, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
The Morning Call reports that on April 22nd, Michael Lin and Zackary Ruiz were arraigned in an American court in Pittsburgh. Lin and Ruiz, both of whom are underage, pleaded not guilty. Ryan Gustafson, 27, the alleged ringleader of the plot, is being held in Uganda where the operation is said to have been based. The fourth member, 30 year-old Jeremy Miller from Seattle, plead not guilty via his attorney the following day in the Pittsburgh court. It is not certain whether Miller will be extradited to the United States, since he is also facing prosecution in Uganda.
Gustafson sold the bills to Ruiz and Miller (among other customers, presumably), who then circulated them across the country.
Lin was not charged with buying the fake notes from Gustafson, though like Ruiz he is facing conspiracy charges. Lin is accused of circulating the currency as well as writing an online guide about how to use them in casinos. Lin, a former employee of the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is 20.
Ruiz, 18, is originally from Las Vegas and despite the federal charges against him, remains a student at the Nevada Virtual Academy. Because he lives at home with his mother and sister, the judge has allowed him to remain free. Lin is also not in jail but has to wear an electronic ankle bracelet because he has no ties to the Bethlehem area.
In what prosecutors call a sophisticated operation, the counterfeit bills were printed in Uganda and then shipped in boxes that appeared to contain brochures from a Christian charity organization in Uganda. The money was hidden under the boxes and kept together by water-soluble glue. The men collected the money by dissolving the boxes in water, freeing the money.
The operation fell apart in December 2013 when authorities arrested a conspirator who is now cooperating as a witness. Assistant U.S. Attorney Shardul Desai told the presiding judge that the trial could take up to a month, due to the tome of documents submitted as evidence, including chatroom and instant messaging transcripts retrieved from the Dark Web. Desai did request, however, that the court seal or redact certain documents in order to protect confidential informants.
“We have data…from all over the world — Uganda and several sites in the United States,” Desai told the judge.
Counterfeiting is a serious problem in the United States, Canada, and throughout the world. In order to combat the problem, many currency counting machines used by banks and financial organizations feature counterfeit-detection technology to root out fake notes quickly.