Trying to buy a $2 bill turns into a $185 mess

May 19, 2011 7:27:21 PM PDT
You may have seen the ads for commemorative $2 bills. Like a lot of people, one woman thought they were issued by the U.S. Government, but in fact, the government doesn't issue commemorative paper money, just coins. What she saw was from a marketing company and 7 On Your Side looks into why she was charged for a lot more than she ordered.

Michele Geils and her family love going to Yellowstone National Park because of the waterfalls, canyons, and wildlife. That's also why a television ad caught her eye. The New England Mint was offering $2 bills commemorating our national parks -- including Yellowstone.

Just $10, the ad said, for a real $2 bill enhanced with a colorful illustration of the park.

"It was a pretty good price and I thought it would be a nice present for my husband," said Geils.

The ad says the bills are "extremely rare" and normally cost $30 each.

"I figured it was a collector's item and I figured I was buying it from the U.S. Government," said Geils. So Geils called the number and immediately was put into an automated ordering system. She ordered the Yellowstone bills, then the recording prompted her to buy more items.

"Then it went on and asked if I wanted to order the Grand Canyon. I said no, then it said 'Do you want five consecutive Yellowstone bills?' and I said no. It just went on and on with all the items," said Geils.

Geils says the prompts wouldn't stop so she hung up. Days later, her package arrived and to her surprise, it was stuffed with items she did not order.

"The five consecutive Yellowstone bills, the five consecutive Grand Canyon bills," said Geils.

The company billed her $185.20 in all. Geils called, returned the unwanted items and demanded a refund.

"I did not hear anything back and so that's when I contacted 7 On Your Side," said Geils.

7 On Your Side looked into the matter and found dozens of similar complaints online. Customers were saying they too were charged for items they didn't order. The Better Business Bureau has received 281 similar complaints about New England Mint's parent company over the past three years.

Turns out New England Mint is a marketing company. It takes real $2 bills and covers them with a layer of colored plastic. So are they collector's items?

"These colorized notes are considered damaged to the serious collector," said Ron Umile from the Robert R. Johnson Coin and Stamp Company, Inc.

Umile is a San Francisco currency dealer and says enhanced $2 bills are worth $2.

"When people come in with this type of merchandise, it's surprising to them that it's not worth more than the face value," said Umile.

Federal law says it's a crime to mutilate currency. However, the New England Mint says it's "enhancing" the bills, not damaging them.

The U.S. Secret Service, which enforces the currency laws, would not comment on whether the company's practice of altering and selling the bills is legal or not.

Charles Lipset, president of New England Mint's parent company, says the bills are perfectly legal. He did not respond to our request for an on camera interview. But in a statement, he said: "There is nothing illegal about enhancing U.S. currency. I am a business and entitled to sell a collectible at any price I want. The future value of any collector's item is impossible to determine. We believe we have created a beautiful piece of art on a $2 bill with national parks on them."

As for billing for items customers did not order, he said: "Many customers order things on the phone, forget what they ordered and then are shocked to see the bill a few weeks later."

And New England Mint did provide Geils with a refund of $147 for items she didn't want. Geils says the bills she did order are an interesting souvenir.

"I guess I'll keep it and just have lots of stories to tell about it," said Geils.

Despite 281 complaints, the Better Business Bureau gives New England Mint's parent company an A+ rating. That's partly due to the fact the company has made efforts to respond to each complaint.

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