Police: Old coins being sold as rare silver dollars are fake

Monday, October 16, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- It looked like the "deal of the century," police said, a couple of guys down on their luck on Skid Row, selling valuable old silver coins for $20 apiece.

It was a pretty good deal, too, but only for the sellers. The coins they were peddling turned out to be as worthless as $3 bills.

"They're such blatant counterfeits that all you have to do is give them a once over with your eyeballs to know they're fakes," said Ron Guth, president of Professional Coin Grading Service in Irvine.

In the case of the rare 1796 silver dollar -- worth perhaps $3.5 million if it was real -- there were 13 stars around Lady Liberty's head, representing the 13 original U.S. colonies. Only problem was, the real coin contains 15 stars.

Then there was the 1832 George Washington quarter, a rare find indeed, seeing as how Washington didn't start appearing on the quarter until 1932.

"I keep getting calls from experts saying things like, 'The Indian head was only on the penny from this year to this year.' All kinds of technical stuff that a person in the know would recognize as a fake," Detective Michael Montoya said.

Investigators are still trying to find the source of the coins, which were confiscated from two street peddlers this week. Montoya said he has heard they are sold in novelty shops where they are packaged in the same kind of protective wrapping that coin collectors use, but marked as "replicas."

Enterprising homeless people might be buying low, removing the replica stickers and selling high to increasing numbers of young professionals moving into expensive condos on the edge of Los Angeles' most destitute neighborhood, he said.

"Somebody sees them and thinks, 'Wow, this guy's got a coin worth thousands of dollars and he's down on his luck so I'm going to get it for 20 bucks and sell it,"' Montoya said.

And that's only if it contains any real silver, said Guth, who says he is seeing more and more fake coins turning up.

"About once a week we get an inquiry from someone in the Philippines that bought one," he said, adding that the word in the industry is they are minted in Asia.

Officers were surprised when they turned up for sale this week in a neighborhood where shoppers' tastes have traditionally leaned toward fake designer clothes, bootlegged DVDs and drugs.

"It's apparently the hot-ticket item right now," Montoya said.

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