Government A-team specializes in mutilated money

July 13, 2010 5:53:26 PM PDT
A recent 7 On Your Side report shared the heartbreaking story of a man who accidentally put four $100 bills through a paper shredder. Just when it all seemed lost, he contacted Michael Finney.

Amazingly, we found a little-known group of miracle workers, not only for this consumer, but anybody who accidentally shreds, mutilates or even burns their cash. Now, 7 On Your Side takes you inside the only place in America that can help.

Brandon Whitney accidentally put four $100 bills into a paper shredder. In seconds, his $400 turned into a worthless pile of confetti.

"I thought I was kind of out of luck with it," he says.

After Brandon's mom contacted 7 On Your side, we found an amazing solution.

At the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., examiners work all day turning piles of mutilated cash into spendable money. It's a free service of the U.S. government.

"We see burned currency. We see buried cases. We see dog chew cases," says Tiryonna White with the Bureau of Engraving & Printing.

And shredding cases, too. It turns out that a lot of us end up with mangled money. The agency receives 20,000 cases per year with a success rate of 90 percent, returning $40 million to consumers. In one case, some ashes are all that's left of what used to be a stack of $20 bills that got burned to a crisp in a bank fire. However, experts say even this chunk of char could be saved.

"If you see the light and you tilt it a little bit, you can see the twenties," an expert examiner said.

"The engraving rises up off of the currency when it's burned," says White. "If the note is black you can still see the engraving."

Hundreds of cases involve money that was damaged during 9/11 and natural disasters, too. In one case from Hurricane Katrina, some moldy lumps buried in a backyard were all that was left of someone's life savings. It looked nothing like money, yet it could possibly be redeemed for cash.

How is it possible? All the examiners have to do is verify that the scraps really were cold hard cash at one time. If they identify at least 51 percent of a bill, the Treasury will replace it.

So what about Brandon's $400?

"As long as we can reconstruct 51 percent -- it doesn't have to be a continuous 51 percent," says White.

In a similar case, $523 accidentally went into a shredder which spit out thousands of tiny green fragments. The examiner is making good progress on it though, giving Brandon hope.

"So there's a chance," says Brandon. "Pretty cool."

We'll be following Brandon's case as it winds through the process at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. It can take up to six months to repair and redeem damaged money.


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