Money Machine

Jay Vollmar

At eighteen, Scott Zuviceh wanted to be just like a Secret Service agent. He'd grown up in Granby, mostly, and was one of the town's more notable troublemakers, a bona fide hellraiser. When he was eleven, he'd been removed from his parents' home and sent to live in a progression of group homes. He'd spent his early teenage years growing his hair long, boozing with misfits, listening to Guns n' Roses; by sixteen, he was serving a two-year stint at a youth detention center in Colorado Springs. And now that he was out, he was looking to make an honest wage.

Zuviceh pleased his family and surprised his friends by enrolling at Executive Security International, a two-year vocational school in Aspen that trains its students to become top-notch bodyguards. The school uses Secret Service training manuals to teach how to detect celebrity stalkers, sniff out bombs and speed away in getaway cars. ESI graduates have gone on to protect people such as Jane Fonda and Bill Gates; Jeff Gillooly, the thug hired by ice skater Tonya Harding to thwack her nemesis, also studied at ESI.

But even in that crowd, Scott Zuviceh had unusual career goals. He didn't plan on becoming a bodyguard for hire, a big-city fed or even a small-town cop. Instead he spent his classroom time conducting his own counter-surveillance on the U.S. government. He wanted to learn how the government "got away with what it got away with," he remembers. To Zuviceh, that meant understanding how the powers that be made their money -- and how they kept it away from everyone else. In other words, he didn't want to become a Secret Serice agent; he wanted to think like one.

In one of Zuviceh's courses, a class on international terrorism, he learned that in the early 1930s the Federal Reserve abandoned the gold standard that had backed U.S. bills pound for pound. Rather, the government now relied on economic formulas and physical wealth, such as rights to oil fields, to fortify the greenback. It was a brilliant scheme concocted by the government and a handful of private bankers to control the world's wealth, as Zuviceh saw it. It also allowed private bankers to write new rules to favor their own bank accounts and then use the amassed riches to support personal causes. That's how international terrorism gets financed, Zuviceh concluded.

Zuviceh was a good student, and away from school, his friends would always catch him with his nose buried in newspapers or books, usually works of fiction that had a knife or gun on the cover. Scotty, as they called him, was smart as a whip but still mischievous as hell. He had a heart like Santa Claus but a brain like Satan.

When Zuviceh completed his stint at ESI in the early '90s, he was 21 years old. He owed $18,000 in student loans and had gone back to partying with old friends. Within a year, his teenage enthusiasm for drugs and alcohol had become very adult excessiveness: He was shooting meth all the time, working through an astonishing $200 a day.

He submerged himself in dreams: What if I were filthy rich? What if I were filthy, roll-in-the-mud, stinking rich? What if I could buy the world and still have change to spare?

Zuviceh got to thinking: If they make money, why can't I?

The first time Scott Zuviceh made something fake, he was sixteen and needed a phony driver's license to get into bars. His fake ID worked, so he made more for his friends, relying on his steady hand and X-Acto knife. Soon they were all drinking and having fun, thanks to Scotty.

Now that he was out of school, Zuviceh had more time to fool around. He also had a new tool: the computer. One day he purchased software for making payroll checks, downloaded it onto his laptop and printed out paychecks for his friends. He created IDs to go with the names on his phony payroll. Within a few days, Zuviceh realized that he was onto something potentially very lucrative: payday, everyday.

But printing bogus paychecks for the same friends again was dangerously redundant, the downfall of any good scam. So Zuviceh started looking for more than a one-hit sting. He and his friends rummaged through mailboxes and broke into cars, stealing personal checkbooks. With a scanner and a few more taps on his computer, Zuviceh created driver's licenses to match. His forged works were nothing spectacular, but they didn't need to be. They just had to look good enough to fool people for a second, that first second they looked at the ID.

When Zuviceh tired of hunting for checkbooks, he simply made his own. He created fake names -- Robin Banks and Michael Hunt were favorites -- fake routing numbers and sometimes even fake banks. The checks were always easy to pass. Unlike cash, personal checks came in a number of colors and designs, too many for a Kmart cashier to keep up with.  

Zuviceh's activities allowed him to maintain his wealth at the same time he shared it. He sold bogus checkbooks to friends for $500 apiece. If the customer couldn't pay the $500 right away, he'd front the cost, then give his friend a shopping list and point him in the direction of a Costco. The friend would return with $500 worth of cell phones, stereos and power tools -- whatever Zuviceh needed or wanted -- and keep the remaining checks for himself. Zuviceh didn't even have to go to the store anymore.

From Zuviceh, his buddies could pick up socket wrenches, sleeping bags, car tires -- he sold the stuff for fifty cents on the dollar. The more money he got, the better the computer equipment he purchased and the more efficient his business.

Zuviceh began toying with the idea of really making his own money. He didn't share his plans with his friends, who would have reminded him that counterfeiting was a big-time bust. While cutting checks was only a state crime, counterfeiting currency was a federal offense -- and that meant serious time in the pen. Still, when he was alone, Zuviceh would "do a load" of speed, lay a few bills facedown on his scanner and see what he could do. But he told himself he was just playing.

After all, by now he'd collected so much stuff that he had to keep several addresses in order to store the goods, worth an amount he couldn't even estimate. He'd created so many fake names and accounts that the money was literally falling out of his pockets. To solve that problem, he bought more pants.

One night Zuviceh rented out an entire floor at the Loews Giorgio Hotel, inviting every tweeker in Denver to join his party. Eight-balls of speed were rolling around mirrors like golf balls on glass. Liquor flowed freely, and room-service waiters were kept hopping. Two of Zuviceh's friends were arrested for trying to rip off the gift shop. Two others tried to steal a statue out of Zuviceh's suite; another group of pranksters attempted to squeeze the leather couches out the side door.

Within two years, Zuviceh's posse of friends and clients had expanded twentyfold. During his high-stakes deals, he'd crossed paths with other bad bankers, and now he found himself inside a well-connected ring of phony checkers. Guys involved in fraud, Zuviceh soon learned, all meet each other sooner or later -- sometimes in jail.

In May 1995, the wild ride ended when Zuviceh and six others in the ring were arrested. Investigators figured that between 200 and 250 people were involved at some level, from buying mass quantities of fake checkbooks to purchasing stolen power drills. All told, they estimated, the fraud came to nearly $250,000 every week -- for eighteen months. Although Zuviceh didn't get tagged for the whole scheme, he was charged with second-degree burglary and sentenced to 103 days and work release.

When he left the program, Zuviceh got married, had a son, and promised himself and his family that he would change his life. He swore off drugs, bad checks and easy money. He got a job building homes and also helped out at his father's restaurant.

His attempt to go straight lasted six months.

Zuviceh decided it was now time to make some real money - cash money. He read up on counterfeiting bills on the Internet and in libraries, and he started practicing. After he ran off a set of twenties he was satisfied with, he tried them out in a dope deal. It all seemed so easy.

Making a bill by computer is a simple process: load, scan and print. But more sophisticated bill-makers, as Zuviceh was fast becoming, "built up" their bills, scanning and printing on eighty-grade stock paper several times with different colors to achieve the best effect.

The new U.S. bills, believed to be counterfeit-proof, proved a temporary obstacle for old-school counterfeiters, but they posed little threat to ink-jetters. The new watermark, along with the sealant strip, can easily be inserted by scanning those items in the first prints; a counterfeiter then soaks the paper in a water solution to thin the paper like papier mâché. After the paper dries, the counterfeiter returns to scanning and building more layers of ink on top until that raised-off-the-paper feeling is reached. When the bill is raised to the light, everything looks fine - at least for that critical second.  

Using more homemade twenties and a few hundreds, Zuviceh would cruise into fast-food drive-through spots and buy a Coke, get the change, then move on to another fast-food outlet. Or a liquor store, or a 7-Eleven, or the casinos in Black Hawk -- wherever the cashiers were clueless and the exchange rate was choice.

Zuviceh didn't sweat a thing. The watermark was there and so was the strip, and even if the cashier pulled out the pen -- the felt pen that thousands of retails stores have been scammed into buying by modern-day snake-oil salesmen, according to the Secret Service -- the mark ran true on Zuviceh's bills.

The fast cash allowed him to run wild again. One night, deep in a drunken stupor, Zuviceh climbed into one of his many cars and sped downhill into a telephone pole. He woke up the next morning in the hospital, his left arm amputated at the elbow. Before the accident, Scott Zuviceh had been left-handed.

Although Zuviceh's friends say the loss of his arm made him "go nuts," Zuviceh insists that everyone else freaked out. He was fine, he says, and the loss of an arm certainly didn't stop him from churning out money. In fact, it helped him remember how to separate the "good" bills from the bad: The real money was kept in his front right pocket, easy to get into with his only hand. The fake money was stashed in his left pocket, and he had to reach across his body to snag some.

In the rare occurrence that a pimply-faced cashier did question one of Zuviceh's bills, he'd feign astonishment -- to the smothered chuckles of his friends -- and apologize profusely. "Here," Zuviceh would say, reaching across his body into his pocket, "let me give you another one."

"Okay," the cashier would gladly respond, with a sigh of embarrassment. "This is better."

Zuviceh knew that cashiers, regular people, didn't ever really expect to encounter counterfeit money. So if they thought for an instant that something was amiss, Zuviceh charmed them into feeling like a crime-stopper, a "real Inspector Clouseau." Because he knew, as he often told his friends, "If you make people feel good, you can buy anything."

Zuviceh felt so good about his life, he didn't even know how much money he had. He definitely didn't know how much he was making. He knew he had an apartment in just about every town in metro Denver, thirteen cars and at least a hundred pairs of Oakley sunglasses.

He felt like he was beating a system, a system that had already been rigged by the feds and the world bankers. Without the backing of gold to keep them honest, Zuviceh says, "They're just another company making money for their own gain. Now, how can that be legal?"

"They're saying it's illegal for anyone else to do it, but what about them? They have all the wealth, and wealth controls everything. Wealth is power. And that's just the way it is."

Denver's Secret Service field office is located on the fourteenth floor of a building at 16th and Lincoln streets. Every day, sitting in that office, Special Agent Rick Flores examines about $3,000 in fake cash collected in the metro area the day before. Since 1865, Secret Service agents like Flores have been responsible for rounding up the country's counterfeiters. People like Scott Zuviceh.

In 1862, the New York Times reported that as much as 80 percent of the nation's currency at the time was fake. After the Civil War and through Reconstruction, counterfeiting remained such a customary practice that it threatened to undermine the economy of the still-fragile nation. Master engravers, trained for more legal works before the war, now spent months crafting plates that mimicked the greenback. They sold these "dirty plates" for thousands of dollars to local pressman, who in turn sold fresh notes by the bundle to currency wholesalers. The wholesalers passed them on to retailers, who passed the notes on to "shovers," or launderers, who worked them into the local economy. Counterfeiting houses were so common and competition between fakers so stiff that brazen retailers often skipped the shovers altogether and advertised their goods in local publications. Meanwhile, confidence in the nation's currency sank so low that the economy sagged near the brink of collapse.

During the war, Congress had turned to the Treasury Department to create a new federal policing agency, one that could restore the integrity of the currency. Nineteenth-century Americans at first viewed the birth of the Secret Service as another abuse of the Constitution, a federalist power grab. But despite the initial resistance of bankers and businessmen, the Secret Service's efforts were so effective that counterfeiting was eradicated within a generation. After that, most agents moved on to other assignments, such as protecting the president.  

Over 130 years later, with an economy so pumped that it seems fake, just 0.03 percent of the country's currency is believed to be counterfeit -- $181 million of an estimated $480 billion in world circulation. Still, Flores inspects between $20,000 and $25,000 worth of fakes each month. After he studies the bills, trying to detect distinguishable marks that can be traced to individual counterfeiters, he moves them into a vault for storage. "I don't like to keep a cluttered desk," he says. Until last year, the counterfeit bills were sent to Washington, D.C., for safekeeping, but headquarters there simply ran out of space.

With the current proliferation of ink-jet printers and scanners, there's little to stop the dime-store counterfeiter from taking a stab at making himself some money. "It is so easy to do these days," Flores says. "When they are just printing a little bit at a time, it makes it really tricky to catch them." In 1995, the Secret Service estimated that only half of 1 percent of all counterfeit bills were made by personal computers. This year, an estimated 45 percent of all bogus bills are printed by ink-jets. And in Denver, far from the port cities that still receive boatloads of pressed cash made in countries like Colombia, a remarkable 75 percent of all fakes are created on computers.

Almost inevitably, Flores says, those fakes are made by males between the ages of 25 and 35. But there are exceptions. In March, three students at Arvada's Pomona High School were arrested for printing fake twenties and selling them to students. In April, thirteen people were arrested in Colorado Springs for allegedly passing $45,000 worth of bogus bills; the group's alleged ringleader, Cavin Chabot, is 20. And in June, five males -- three juveniles, one age 20 and one age 23 -- were arrested and charged with making at least $3,000 worth of bills on their personal computers.

Testifying on Capitol Hill last year, Lewis C. Merletti, director of the Secret Service, said, "Today's counterfeiter, with little training, skill or experience, can produce counterfeit currency with computer skills obtained through trial and error and public information." The Secret Service can't stop the flow of public information, he noted, but it can lean on the computer industry. In a three-pronged proposal to combat the new breed of counterfeiter, Merletti pushed Congress to raise prison sentences for counterfeiters, invest in public education to detect frauds, and ask for the "cooperation of the computer-related industries to suppress computer-generated counterfeiting of U.S. currency." The Secret Service isn't commenting on what has become of that "cooperation," but ink-jet printers and scanners become more commonplace by the day.

In early 1998, Zuviceh moved into a boxy apartment in Golden located across the street from a 7-Eleven. He stopped in the store every day, picking up small items such as soda pop and snacks, and started talking up the young cashier, a nineteen-year-old girl named Tiffanie Wheeler. She was funny, a good girl to be around. Pretty soon he was inviting Wheeler over to the apartment.

Wheeler had a crush on Zuviceh, which was obvious to everyone in the circle but Zuviceh -- at least he never acknowledged the attraction. Zuviceh was popular with the ladies, as they say, and his free-spending attitude didn't hurt his standing. Although he liked Wheeler, he insisted to everyone that they were just friends.

They hung out together all summer, using drugs and "going shopping," the phrase Zuviceh used for passing fake checks or bills. So there wasn't anything unusual about that afternoon in late August when Zuviceh walked across the street, asked Wheeler what she was doing after work, and suggested, "Let's go shoppin'."

On August 29, 1998, according to Secret Service affidavits, Zuviceh and Wheeler walked into the Costco in Westminster and purchased some electronic equipment. Using a fake check and the name Kimberly Farren, Wheeler paid $1,040.65 for a scanner and camera equipment. The pair spent the next two days rounding up counterfeiting supplies, useless toys to add to Zuviceh's stash, and some dope.

On September 1, Zuviceh and Wheeler checked into the Friends & Lovers Motel, a scraggly outpost on Federal Boulevard. The two were settling in for a large run, one in which "I planned to make millions," Zuviceh later said.

In their room, number 12, Zuviceh had amassed the makings for a small treasury. There was a color copying machine, an ink-jet printer, an industrial-strength color printer commonly used for making large banners, a laptop computer, cutting boards, check stocks and a slew of computer gadgets: battery packs, power inverts, hard drives, floppy disks, keyboard adapters, reams of paper and ink cartridges.  

During that first week, the 6' 1", 180-pound Zuviceh shot a load of dope five times a day, every day. He and Wheeler spent their nights driving through fast-food joints, using fresh fake twenties to purchase sodas. They ate out at Denny's, Burger King and Good Times.

Their activities were hardly secret from other motel residents. Zuviceh, too drugged to care, often left the door wide open while he chatted with fellow tenants. He flat-out told several of them, including one motel employee, that he was making money. Believing the employee was a friend, Zuviceh bought him a scanner as a start-up kit. When Zuviceh walked in on the man printing substandard sheets of fifties, he shook his head and said, "If you're going to do it, you might as well do it right. I'll show you."

That man, whose identity is concealed in Secret Service reports, turned out to be a snitch who rolled over on Zuviceh. On September 8, the Secret Service was called in and two Denver field agents, Special Agent McRay Murdock and Special Agent Mike Marsden, began a stakeout. The source handed over $800 that Zuviceh had given him to use in the slot machines in Central City.

On the night of September 10, Zuviceh and Wheeler were out shopping, cruising and visiting friends; Zuviceh also made one stop at his father's house. After they returned to the motel, Zuviceh wanted to install a new printer, one he was excited about because of its increased DPI. But the dope Zuviceh had been shooting the past few days wasn't up to snuff, and he started dozing off -- the mark of bad speed. Finally, after two weeks without so much as a nap, Zuviceh fell asleep.

When he woke up at about 10 a.m. the next day, he shot another load and got to work installing the printer. To test his new gadget, he took out a twenty, a five and a one-dollar bill. He placed them on the scanner. He hit the return button, then started to take off his shoes so that he could shower.

One shoe off, he heard Wheeler say, "Uh-oh." He looked toward the door.

Three Secret Service agents were pointing guns at him.

Zuviceh had rigged his computers so that a virus would destroy their files if a password was fumbled on three consecutive tries. As the agents attempted to download the evidence, the virus eroded his gear; little was salvaged in their case against him.

In all, the Secret Service recovered several bogus checkbooks and identification cards, which carry state fraud charges, and only four counterfeit twenty-dollar bills, which were soaking in glasses of water. An additional sheet of three uncut twenty-dollar notes was removed from the motel room.

For the next month, the agents traced back through the stores Zuviceh and Wheeler had frequented, rounding up bogus cash to build a federal case against the two. They came up with only $680.

The first time the government offered a plea agreement to Zuviceh, in early 1999, he accepted the deal. But then at a hearing that's usually a simple formality, Zuviceh surprised his own lawyers by suddenly denying any involvement in the scheme.

He told the judge he was only accepting the deal in order to hurry up and get on with his life. "The only thing I agree with was that I was at room number 12 at the hotel up there, and that's about it," he said. "I mean, my fingerprints were found on some stock paper, on some blank computer paper. But I'm being told, I'm being explained to that the fact is, you know, I'm hit no matter what, so I might as well just make this deal."

Zuviceh knew the evidence would snag him for counterfeiting at some level, so he couldn't deny everything -- but he knew he didn't have to admit to much. The judge angrily rejected the deal, but before he let Zuviceh return to his cell, he had some questions.

Judge: Now, tell me who you were involved with in this counterfeiting operation. Did you do this with somebody?

Zuviceh: No.

Judge: You did it all by yourself?

Zuviceh: Yes.

Judge: So this was all your idea?

Zuviceh: Yeah.

Judge: How did you get caught?

Zuviceh: Huh?

Judge: How did you get caught?

Zuviceh: I still don't know that, sir.

When the government offered a second plea agreement two months later, Zuviceh accepted it without complaint. If a counterfeiter gets caught with more than $3,000, it's considered a conspiracy, and the sentence can stretch up to 25 years. But $680 doesn't count as much of a federal offense.  

Zuviceh wound up pleading guilty to three counts of counterfeiting, and possessing, U.S. currency. During his 27 months behind bars, he was banned from using computers in study hall.

Last month, on September 8, Zuviceh was released. He walked out of prison, age 28, with $80 in his pocket earned from working cafeteria jobs on the inside. But that money quickly vanished as he paid off small bonds on lesser charges. By the time a friend and Zuviceh's father came to pick him up outside the prison, Zuviceh's wallet was empty.

With outstanding medical bills from his amputation, outstanding school loans, miscellaneous debts from his divorce, including child support, and the restitution he's been ordered to make by the court, Scott Zuviceh is now in the hole for about $140,000. Last week he started work as a supervisor at a friend's maintenance company. He makes $10 an hour, a pittance compared to what he knows he could really make in an hour.

The thought still crosses his mind.

"Well, yeah," he says. "It crosses everyone's mind, doesn't it?"

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