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Counterfeit conspiracy: Are pens for real?

Recently I was in a store where the clerk ran a pen over my $20 bill. Made a mess out of it. Said she was testing to see if it was counterfeit. Supposedly the pen mark will turn a certain color if the bill is fake. Is there such a test? I have never heard of such a thing. It seemed to me she was defacing my bill which I thought was illegal.

— Larry S., Jacksonville

It's true, Larry. Store cashiers and bank tellers generally have counterfeit detection pens they use to find out whether the money they receive is legitimate.

The pens have an iodine solution that reacts with the starch in wood-based paper to create a black mark. When the solution is applied to dollar bills made of fiber-based paper, the ink remains an orange-yellow color.

"I had one customer who insisted I mark all his 50 and 100 dollar bills," said Amber Watson, a customer service representative with Umpqua Bank. "It's just one of the ways we make sure we aren't receiving or giving out counterfeit money."

The marks are not considered defacement as spelled out in federal law. Under that provision, defacement is defined as mutilating, cutting, disfiguring, perforating or gluing together bank bills.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. The volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.