Got dirty money? Don’t panic. And don’t count out that contaminated cash Got dirty money? Don’t panic. And don’t count out that contaminated cash

Bills get tainted by all sorts of things – blood, water, mold – but they can often be saved Bills get tainted by all sorts of things – blood, water, mold – but they can often be saved

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March 18, 2021

It’s been nearly a decade since Tropical Storm Irene whipped through Vermont, destroying roads, and causing flooding that cut off about a dozen communities and left some businesses and homes largely underwater.

It also soaked a lot of bills, leaving banks to handle the contaminated cash. And it turns out not everyone knew what to do with it.

One bank did the right thing and put all the wet money in a room with a fan to dry it, recalled Lisa Perlini, a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the head of its Cash Services department.

But another sent the Boston Fed a huge bag of money that still had water in it.

“By the time we received it, the money was wet and incredibly smelly,” Perlini said.

This was not a textbook technique for handling dirty money. But the message from Perlini is that there are ways to salvage cash – whether it’s swollen with water, beset with mold, or stained with blood – and retain its worth.

First things first – bring it to the bank

Perlini said the first thing to remember about dirty money is: Don’t handle it yourself. Instead, bring it to a local bank – even though, as noted above, banks occasionally make mistakes.

If people try to, say, wash and dry dirty money in the laundry, it could wrongly come up as fake money when a cashier uses a counterfeit detector pen on it, Perlini said. That’s because the way laundry detergent can interact with the special linen in bills can cause the pen to register a false positive, she said.

Even if cash is smelly or dirty, banks give their customers credit for the deposit, said Garrett Francis, the Boston Fed’s director of Cash Services. The money is double-bagged, and the bank notifies the Fed that the deposit will be sent for special handling.

“Bagging keeps contaminants such as mold from making their way out of those plastic bags and into our respiratory systems,” Francis said.

If the currency is old series, meaning out of circulation, or a high-denomination note like a $100 bill, then those also have to be packaged separately, Francis said.

Sometimes cash gets caught in a flood, sometimes the dog eats it

It’s common for money to be contaminated during natural disasters. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina, no one could get into the Atlanta Fed’s New Orleans branch for weeks at a time, and vaults in the below-sea-level city were submerged, Francis said.

Perlini added that people sometimes stumble upon moldy, damp cash when basements flood from rain or when they clean out the houses of deceased loved ones.

But there are plenty of unusual scenarios. Francis recalled a batch of cash that was eaten and regurgitated by a family’s dog. Another time, money was moldy after a suspect being chased on foot by police dove into a body of water.

Currency involved in bank robberies or seized during investigations can have numerous contaminants like drugs or blood, as well tear gas and aerosol from exploding dye packs meant to stain stolen money so thieves can’t use it.

“I didn't realize until I worked in Cash Services just how bad the dye smells,” Perlini said. “I don't know how bank robbers put it in their cars and drive away.”

The Boston Fed processes a lot of dirty money. Here are some stats from recent years:

  • 2020, 53 deposits totaling $76,500
  • 2019, 65 deposits totaling $192,000
  • 2018, 72 deposits totaling $111,000
  • 2017, 84 deposits totaling $335,000

The bottom line is this: If you come across dirty money, don’t count it out. Head to a bank.

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