PETALUMA, Calif. (KTVU) - Counterfeit money is making the rounds in the North Bay. Fake bills have been passed in ten Petaluma businesses so far, and investigators say that number could grow.
Fortunately, most of the businesses have spotted the phony bills before accepting them as payment.
"It was just so fake, I don't know who would have taken it," Samantha Arellano, owner of Thai Issan Restaurant, told KTVU.
The man she encountered ordered a $2 thai iced tea, then paid with a $100 bill.
Arrelano sized it up immediately.
"I said to my server, 'this is fake, can't you tell?,' and who's going to order iced tea and pay with a hundred dollar bill, that's super-fake."
Petaluma Police showed KTVU some of the confiscated bills in evidence.
One is simply a photocopy of a twenty.
Most are hundreds, and one has the faint outline of a "1" in the corner.
It is a one dollar bill, bleached and printed over as a hundred.
"Here's a poor attempt at a watermark, " noted Lt. Tim Lyons, showing a face that appeared to be drawn-on with pen.
Fakes this amateurish are easy to spot if clerks take the time, and most of the retailers did refuse the bills.
"It seems to go in waves, for a few days or a weekend, and then stops," explained Lt. Lyons, " so it's probably a crew from out of the area, trying to pass some bills then go somewhere else."
At Petaluma's outlet mall, four different stores had counterfeits offered.
A Chevron gas station mini-mart was another target, along with a Raley's Supermarket and Trader Joe's in the same plaza.
"We have black lights, and you can hold them up to the light," Raley's manager Hayden Bush told KTVU, "so there's a stripe and watermark to look for."
At Trader Joe's, the clerk followed the counterfeiter out of the store and saw him join someone else.
Police say there may be three men and a woman involved, and investigators are working on pulling surveillance video.
They have captured images of a suspect vehicle, a 2015 gray Dodge Durango, which was rented in the Sacramento area, to a Stockton man.
"We are assuming they came from the Sacramento area, and are just hitting one locality before moving on, so we think this is bigger than just Petaluma," said Lyons.
The best advice for merchants: pay attention especially if it's a big denomination and a small purchase.
At the cineplex in downtown Petaluma, the ticket-sellers were fooled once, and accepted a fake $100 for theatre admission, giving back change.
The second time, they used an ultraviolet light and detected the fraud.
In some cases, the perpetrators have taken their bill and left.
But at Thai Issan, the server stood her ground.
"He wanted it back and she was like 'nope, I can't give it back to you and I'm calling the police,'" recounted Arrelano, "so he left."