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Old 12-22-2012, 10:36 AM
robert_columbia robert_columbia is offline
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Businesses/police tracking bills by serial number in the past - feasible?

Some time ago, I read a children's book that had, as a plot device, money being tracked by serial number. I believe this was an Enid Blyton book from the 1950's or 1960's. What more or less happened in the book was that some naughty children took money from the main office of their school and went on a spending spree. The school reported the money stolen, and police called back a few hours or days later to report that some or all of the money had been identified via serial number as money that two <description matching our characters> children had spent buying candy, cakes, or some other form of junk food.

To what extent would this have been common or feasible? Would a 1950's school have kept a log or ledger of the serial number of every bill/note in its petty cash supply so that they could report specific missing bills to police or identify them later, as opposed to just keeping track of the total amount that should be there?

Assuming the school recorded the serial numbers to begin with, I can think of the following two ways that this plot could have been effectuated:

1) The police took the list of the serial numbers of the stolen bills and distributed them to local businesses by phone, mail, or by hand and businesses compared every incoming bill to the "stolen bill list", and if they found a match, they detained or recorded the description of the person passing the note, then called police.

2) Businesses would have, as a general practice, kept a log of the serial number of every bill that came in along with a description of the passer (e.g. "Five pound note, serial E44646DC, little girl about 9 years old with brown pigtails, blue skirt, red coat"), and police could then stop by to review the logs to compare them against today's stolen bill list.

Yes, I know that Enid Blyton is not considered the height of literary excellence, but would including this plot in the 1950's or 1960's have been primarily a scare tactic or ploy to deter kids from not stealing money, or would such a plot have been a feasible occurrence?

When I was a child in the 1980's in the US, when credit cards were much rarer and more people paid cash and we always made a big withdrawal in cash before going on vacation, I never saw anyone record bills by serial number.

Sure, you can easily think of a solution today with automated bill scanners tied in with security cameras, but I'm not sure that such would be feasible, let alone affordable, to small businesses in the 1950's or 60's. Yes, I know about such websites as Where's George and EuroBillTracker, but those did not exist 30 years ago, let alone in the 1960's.

Last edited by robert_columbia; 12-22-2012 at 10:38 AM. Reason: spelling
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Old 12-22-2012, 11:47 AM
DataX DataX is offline
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The only times I am aware of - of bills being tracked is:
1) Counterfeiting
2) Ransom demands
3) Drug buys

Some currency counters will record serial numbers.

My understanding is that when banks return/deposit money to the federal reserve - each FRN is tested for fitness - if unfit - it is shredded and the serial number recorded. I am not sure if it is recorded at the scanning stage itself, but my guess would be yes.

Probably drug buys are the most common - and they just record the numbers down so they can prove who had a transaction with whom later on. They physically find the bill on a suspect, witness, store, etc.
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Old 12-22-2012, 11:50 AM
chacoguy chacoguy is offline
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I don't know how, but they've been tracking the money paid to D.B. Cooper ever since.
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Old 12-22-2012, 04:33 PM
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Not specifically an answer to the scenario in the OP, but when I was a bank teller we recorded the serial numbers on the "bait" money in our till. The bait money was kept in a special slot in the till. When removed, it set off the silent alarm and notified the police. We were trained to give the robber the bait money along with other bills. When the police caught the robber with the cash it could be positively identified as belonging to the bank.
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Old 12-22-2012, 04:44 PM
robert_columbia robert_columbia is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chacoguy View Post
I don't know how, but they've been tracking the money paid to D.B. Cooper ever since.
I'm pretty sure that the only Cooper money that ever turned up was the batch they found in the woods that one time. It hasn't been observed trickling slowly into banks. It's possible that the money was circulated into the banking system but it was never noticed, which would tend to indicate that the situation in my OP, where an astute clerk catches the culprit by looking at the serial number of the bill they were given, would not have been likely in those days.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Doctor Jackson View Post
Not specifically an answer to the scenario in the OP, but when I was a bank teller we recorded the serial numbers on the "bait" money in our till. The bait money was kept in a special slot in the till. When removed, it set off the silent alarm and notified the police. We were trained to give the robber the bait money along with other bills. When the police caught the robber with the cash it could be positively identified as belonging to the bank.
But in the scenario in the story, the money was just ordinary money that the school had. It wasn't part of a sting operation or anything of that nature. Your situation also requires that the culprit be caught with the bait money. In my OP, the culprit is caught not because they were caught through some means other than tracking serial numbers and found to have the stolen money on them at that time, but they were caught via observation of the serial numbers of bills that were circulating.
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Old 12-22-2012, 04:53 PM
dracoi dracoi is offline
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I can contribute two things:

I remember working in a retail store that kept a list of serial numbers for bills that were counterfeit. This was supplied by law enforcement, I think. We only used it for $100 bills.

More to the point of the OP:
My wife - who worked in school admin for about twenty years - has brought to my business the practice of photocopying all checks and cash received. I don't know how widespread this is, but she picked it up in schools. The real purpose was documenting cash for accounting and accountability purposes, it has a side effect of painlessly recording the serial numbers and customer name. Photocopiers certainly existed in the 50s.

I doubt local stores would have kept a record of customers/numbers, but turn it around: if the police already have a suspect, they can follow that suspect around and then go into a store after they make a purchase, compare serial numbers from the merchant's till and make the connection that way.
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Old 12-22-2012, 04:55 PM
Amateur Barbarian Amateur Barbarian is offline
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Whenever money passes through Fed banks, the counting process analyzes serial numbers. The equipment that does so has been in use for many years, and I believe it became universal more than ten years ago. In theory, any bill could be detected by number if it passed through a Federal Reserve house. I'm not sure that the system is (yet) at such a specific and granular level but there's nothing but need/desire and implementation standing in the way.

About the only time serial numbers matter is, as stated above, when police are specifically looking for robbery or ransom money. Stopping someone with a bag of money is not necessarily going to tie them to the robbery; finding recorded bait money in the bag is pretty much conclusive.

The DB Cooper money was almost certainly washed out to sea; the few bundles found on the riverbank were likely put there by dredging. The most likely scenario is that Cooper went into the Columbia, drowned, and was washed out to sea without leaving a trace. Some of the money sank and was preserved long enough to be dredged up and tossed to the bank. There was a book a few years ago, almost certainly bogus, that claimed Cooper fed the money back into the system by buying and then cashing in casino chips. In an era before automated serial number detection, it's just barely possible that those bills circulated out their lifetime without ever being spotted... but way unlikely. Not ONE bill every showed up, ever? Exceedingly unlikely. Nope: drowned, washed away, RIP, dude. Nice try.
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Old 12-23-2012, 04:29 PM
Hari Seldon Hari Seldon is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chacoguy View Post
I don't know how, but they've been tracking the money paid to D.B. Cooper ever since.
Are you saying some of it has circulated? I had assumed that he and the money fell into some canyon and neither have ever been heard from again.
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Old 12-23-2012, 06:26 PM
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Banks keep track of the serial numbers off their "marked" bills, which are kept in the bottom of each cash drawer and only handed out when they are robbed. The list is given to the police after a robbery; the bills are not "marked" in the sense of a marking on the bill.
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Old 12-23-2012, 07:59 PM
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Alley Dweller Alley Dweller is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dracoi View Post
More to the point of the OP:
My wife - who worked in school admin for about twenty years - has brought to my business the practice of photocopying all checks and cash received. I don't know how widespread this is, but she picked it up in schools. The real purpose was documenting cash for accounting and accountability purposes, it has a side effect of painlessly recording the serial numbers and customer name. Photocopiers certainly existed in the 50s.
It is highly improbable that an ordinary grade school would have had a photocopier in the 1950s. The Xerox 914 was the first plain-paper commercial copier and Xerox didn't sell the first one until 1960. Except for a very wealthy school district or perhaps a private school, it is unlikely that an elementary school would have a photocopier until at least the late 1960s and even then its use would probably be very restricted.

Yes, there were primitive non-Xerox copiers in the 1950s that made short-lasting copies on special paper. The machines and supplies were expensive.

If a school needed to make copies of something back then, they would use carbon paper. If a lot of copies were needed (for a classroom handout, for example), they would use a spirit duplicator (affectionately known as a "ditto machine").
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Old 12-23-2012, 08:47 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Alley Dweller View Post
It is highly improbable that an ordinary grade school would have had a photocopier in the 1950s. The Xerox 914 was the first plain-paper commercial copier and Xerox didn't sell the first one until 1960. Except for a very wealthy school district or perhaps a private school, it is unlikely that an elementary school would have a photocopier until at least the late 1960s and even then its use would probably be very restricted.

Yes, there were primitive non-Xerox copiers in the 1950s that made short-lasting copies on special paper. The machines and supplies were expensive.
Just to magnify what you said, prior to the 914, copying of ordinary originals was expensive, slow and clumsy. And the 914 required putting anything not 8.5x11 inches into a plastic carrier, because it fed a narrow input area. You couldn't copy a book.

Most other copying machines required a special original (mimeograph, spirit duplicator, hectograph, Diazo). Photostats, which could copy almost anything, were expensive, slow and rarely used except for critical documents (driver's licenses, wills, deeds, mortgages).

The idea of copying cash as a normal accounting procedure is highly unlikely.
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Old 12-23-2012, 11:54 PM
Northern Piper Northern Piper is offline
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I have seen references to this practice in english mystery novels by Sayers and Christie set in the twenties and thirties. It's usually in reference to Treasury notes (i.e. notes issued by the Bank of England) rather than bank notes (notes issued by private banks). Treasury notes appear to have been higher class than bank notes. For instance, in Busman's Honeymoon, Lord Peter pulls a £5 treasury note out of his billfold to donate to the vicar, and it causes a minor stir.

I've always wondered about the recording of note numbers in these novels, but it may be there were special rules for treasury notes. A £5 note in the late 30's would have been the equivalent of $25 US, so a fairly hefty sum.
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Old 12-24-2012, 12:21 AM
DrDeth DrDeth is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Doctor Jackson View Post
Not specifically an answer to the scenario in the OP, but when I was a bank teller we recorded the serial numbers on the "bait" money in our till. The bait money was kept in a special slot in the till. When removed, it set off the silent alarm and notified the police. We were trained to give the robber the bait money along with other bills. When the police caught the robber with the cash it could be positively identified as belonging to the bank.
Right, only bills that are expected to give give to crooks have their numbers recorded fro tracking.

But even so, the system is hardly fool-proof. Few businesses have the time to check every bill vs a list, nor do banks (altho at a certain level, with todays tech they can be checked). It might work in a very small town.

Now the US treasury does record every bill taken in to be destroyed, and none of the Cooper bills have ever come in. Thus, they were never put into circulation.
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