COURTHOUSE — Our scene opens on a January day in the 5800 block of Newtown Arch in Virginia Beach. A small exchange is about to be made. A woman expects a buyer to show up for her iPhone. Arrangements for the meet have been made through a digital marketplace. He arrives. She shows him the phone, but then he grabs it, shoves $400 into her hand, makes a hasty exit by foot.
Cut to the money, and here’s the twist.
The paper resembles $400, four $100 bills, but — in a lesson that has been learned from Hollywood to Virginia Beach — looks aren’t everything.
These bills are smaller than the real deal.
And they have “MOTION PICTURE USE ONLY” marked on them.
These details and some to follow are contained in an affidavit filed with a search warrant in Virginia Beach Circuit Court by city police Detective T.J. Giles, who is assigned to the property crimes division in the Fourth Precinct.
A few days after the exchange, a Virginia Beach man named Christopher Byas was tracked down through his accounts on mobile applications and arrested. He was selling a similar phone to the one taken from the woman using a mobile application. He had another $100 bill that was identical to those he gave to the victim earlier, according to the affidavit.
Byas was granted $4,000 bond but remained in city jail, according to online jail records. He stands accused by police of passing off prop money – simulated cash usually meant to be used in big and small screen productions – as the real McCoy. He faces charges of forging a coin or bank note and obtaining money or goods by false pretenses.
When this story originally was published in print on Friday, March 17, Byas was scheduled to be in General District Court for a preliminary hearing in late March. The hearing in the matter has since been continued until Friday, April 21, according to online court records.
Virginia Beach Master Police Officer Tonya Pierce, a department spokesperson, said police have had similar cases in the past. Via email, she forwarded prop money from a previous case, though the department declined to share images of the bills from the case in January because it is ongoing in the courts.
The bills provided are clearly marked as props, though they also look similar to real money — and anyone can buy them online.
Misuse of the prop money has been a concern around the country, and police here have also warned merchants about the bills, including in a notice sent to retailers before the holiday shopping season.
Prop money can be bought through online marketplaces, and media reports around the U.S. discuss crooks misusing the stuff in situations similar to what allegedly happened here in Virginia Beach.
Reports of people using prop money come from places as far flung as Renton, Wash., to New England.
According to news reports, the bills have been used to make off with expensive shoes in Washington, an iPad in Tennessee, a four-wheeler in Louisiana, a series of scams in Ohio, even lawn equipment from a Georgia Wal-Mart. In Virginia, WHSV-TV last year reported issues with prop money in Richmond after police there warned businesses to be on the lookout for the bills.
Prop bills bearing the same serial numbers to the bills that have been seen in Virginia Beach have showed up in Kentucky and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, according to media reports and alerts from local law enforcement agencies in those communities.
In December, police in Idaho warned about prop bills marked in $100, $50 and $20 denominations, all showing the same serial number, being passed at local businesses, East Idaho News reported.
The bills in those alerts and reports show a serial number used by a Florida company, Production Props and Media Designs, which says online that the number is ficticious and appears on all its bills. It is not the only example of a prop bill circulating online, and, to be clear, production of the bills is not at issue. How some people put them to use is.
A man who answered the phone there on Wednesday, March 8, referred The Independent News to the site.
The company’s site, like others offering similar products, has a number of disclaimers about use of the bills and potential legal ramifications of misuse. The props are intended for film, TV and media uses only, the website says. The company did not respond to emailed questions.
Their bills are clearly marked as “FOR MOTION PICTURE USE ONLY” at the top and back of the bills.
Other prop money producers, such as one in New England that did not have a working phone number or respond to emailed questions, include disclaimers, sell prop bills online and have had ones matching their serial number in bills encountered by police. In Ocean Park, Md., a drug suspect carrying six bills there was not charged because he did not pass them as real.
People keep using bills meant to fool the camera to fool folks in real life transactions. Such as man who tried to use $200 in prop money when paying a drug dealer in Georgia this past year. The alleged dealer got wise to the scam and took after the customer with a baseball bat, Online Athens (Ga.) reported.
Police there reported a rise in prop money passed as real and arrested a man who acknowledged buying it online and gave it to other people, according to Online Athens.
Misuse of prop money is a small drop in the bucket of counterfeiting, but law enforcement takes the matter seriously, according to George Purefoy, the resident agent in charge of the Secret Service’s Norfolk field office.
Counterfeit currency is reported to the office each day, often by banks that have it turned in from businesses making deposits.
“The majority of people getting fooled are just rushing with their transactions,” Purefoy said, speaking about prop money. “I’d advise that everyone take their time and look at the money they’re receiving.”
He also said people who may encounter prop money that is passed as though it is real or any counterfeit currency in transactions should contact local law enforcement and the Secret Service. Counterfeit money is catalogued and shared with offices in Washington, he said.
In the January Virginia Beach case, the victim contacted police, who made an arrest within days. Among other tips, police have urged members of the public to use police precincts as meetup spots when meeting sellers or buyers they know only through online markets.
Prop money is available online for as little as $10 for fake stacks representing far greater sums. There is also “play money” for sale and bills that do not appear to be clearly marked props dollars, in some cases. Those “play money” bills do not appear to be from established prop companies such as those mentioned in this story.
To be clear — there is no indication of wrongdoing on the part of the prop companies. The act of passing prop dollars as though they are real currency is what leads to law enforcement issues.
That the bills are so readily available can come as a surprise to people with experience in the legal system, including counterfeiting cases.
Senior Assistant Public Defender Anton Karpov, who is representing Byas in the Virginia Beach matter, would not discuss the case involving his client because it is still going through the courts.
However, speaking about counterfeiting in general, he noted that printers can make bills that are hard to tell apart from the real thing.
He said he was surprised about the availability of movie props to the public.
“To be honest, it shocks me,” he said.
While speaking with a reporter by phone on Friday, March 10, the attorney looked up examples at sites that sell the bills.
“I’m looking at a picture, and this is crazy,” Karpov said. “I’m surprised that something like this would be sold online.”
In an interview, Chris Miller, owner of the Prop Money Store in Chattanooga, Tenn., said some problems stem in part from some producers of prop bills who make their product look too real.
In some cases, he said, they may be using elements from real money. That’s not allowed. He added that his business, which supplies motion picture and television studios, does not do this, and they adhere to strict design guidelines.
“The law states that you cannot use any image or illustration of real currency or manipulate it,” he said during a telephone interview on Monday, March 6.
Miller said his company delayed releasing a version of newer color bills, in part, to ensure there would not be issues with the U.S. Treasury or Secret Service.
“What’s happened is the new style bills – the color bills – people didn’t know exactly what they look like,” he said.
Occasionally, there have been issues with bills used in productions getting into the hands of the public. Miller said that a blockbuster movie, Rush Hour 2, blew up fake money with an abandoned casino in Las Vegas several years ago.
“Of course people picked it up,” he said. “It’s a nice little souvenir to have.”
However, the movie cash started showing up at stores after extras and passersby apparently picked it up and tried to pass it off. The Secret Service took note of that, according to a report by Priceonomics, and seized about $100 million.
In prop cash, that is.
The L.A. Times reported that cash simulating currency from the 1930s shown in the 1965 poker film The Cincinnati Kid was developed with the okay of the Secret Service. It, too, was passed around in the real world — allegedly by extras in the flick, according to media reports.
Virginia Beach filmmaker Ethan Marten, an Oceanfront resident who is the founder and chief executive officer of Light Age Films, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday, March 7, that he has used real money the few times he’s shown cash on the screen.
“You just make sure it’s accounted for and returned after the shot is wrapped,” Marten said. “The thought of someone taking prop money and trying to use it is absurd.”
There are moviemaking tricks to make the camera and audience think great sums are at play in entertainments, he noted, such as placing the real bills atop paper to simulate a stack of money.
Marten said he was flummoxed by the thought of trying to spend a prop, as court records allege happened in January.
“I’m just flabbergasted,” he said. “How did it work out for the guy?”
Not so good.
“It’s a cautionary tale,” the filmmaker offered. “This sounds like a bad script.”
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