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CARTER: What’s that in your — oh, hell no! Lady, you listen to me right now. You put that bomb down and turn it off!

LEE: Carter, we have to jump!

CARTER: You crazy man, I ain’t jumping! Turn that bomb off — AAAAUGH!

You’re hearing a scene from the 2001 action comedy Rush Hour 2. In this climactic moment, two detectives, played by Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, narrowly escape a bomb explosion at a casino. As they descend to safety on a makeshift zipline, around a billion dollars in cash rains down on the streets below.

CARTER: That wasn’t so bad!


The sequence was filmed at a Las Vegas hotel in late 2000. At the shoot, everything went according to plan. But in the following weeks, something strange happened. Some of the fake, prop money the film had used began to show up at local businesses.

RAPPAPORT: The wind caught some of the money and people grabbed what was the equivalent of, you know, thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. They went into casinos, they went to stores, they went to gas stations, and they just spent money! And the police were called, the Secret Service was called, the production was shut down, costing a fortune. To this day, the people in the film industry just tremble thinking about it.

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Prop money.

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150 years ago, around one-third of all the currency in the United States was counterfeit. To combat that problem, then-President Abraham Lincoln created the Secret Service. The agency was a part of the Department of the Treasury; its sole mission was to get all of those fakes out of the economy. One of its initiatives was to ban any reproduction of U.S. currency. And when the film industry came along, producers had to get creative with how they represented cash on camera.

RAPPAPORT: If you want to go way back at the turn of the century, the old movies actually used weird-looking foreign currency. And there was a reason: it was cheap, it was plentiful, and it was legal.

That’s Rich “R.J.” Rappaport, a long-time propmaker. He says that for the first half of the 20th century a lot of Westerns and silent films enlisted old Mexican banknotes that had lost value after the country’s revolution. But they weren’t very convincing.

RAPPAPORT: The Mexican pesos that they were using at the time were gigantic. It didn’t look anything like real money. It looked like large pieces of paper.

Today, it’s a different story. As film switched to color, and audiences became more sophisticated, the demand for more believable prop money grew. And, over the past few decades, a small number of companies have been permitted to manufacture it.

RAPPAPORT: Prop money has changed tremendously. Now they want the latest, greatest money that looks incredibly realistic. And it has to look perfect.

Rappaport runs RJR Props, a full-service prop company based in Atlanta, Georgia — a state where so many movies are now shot these days that it’s become known as “the Hollywood of the South.” At Rappaport’s studio, you’ll find all kinds of crazy stuff: vintage cash registers, replicas of World War II-era machine guns, fake drugs, laboratory equipment —

RAPPAPORT: We even have a New York City subway train. From the D line!

CROCKETT: Like, a real train?

RAPPAPORT: A real train. I kid you not. I’m not going to tell you how I got it, but I will say this much: they are still looking for it.

Before he was in props, Rappaport ran a computer server business. He gained a reputation in Hollywood as a go-to guy for tech stuff — big panels with blinking lights, circuit boards, and mission control desks. A lot of his gear was tailor-made for action movies and thrillers. And naturally, he started getting requests for prop money. So, he set out to make some. But it turns out that printing convincing-looking U.S. currency is complicated.

RAPPAPORT: There’s a very fine balance. If you try to make it completely realistic, you’re going to be breaking counterfeiting laws. And so I decided I’m going to go ahead and study. I’m going to find out everything I can about prop money.

That included meeting with the Secret Service. Over the course of three years, he went back and forth with the agency to make sure what he was doing was legit.

RAPPAPORT: At first we thought we got it. We made a big batch. And the Secret Service said, “R.J., it’s beautiful. It’s perfect. It’s fantastic.” And I said, “Really?” They said, “Now go burn it.”

CROCKETT: It was too good?

RAPPAPORT: It was too good.

KESSLER: My name is Glen Kessler. I’m currently the director of Risk and Intelligence for Wells Fargo.

CROCKETT: And what did you do before that?

KESSLER: Uh, 26 years with the United States Secret Service as a special agent in charge.

During his career with the Secret Service, Glen Kessler traveled to more than 80 countries. He protected three different presidents. And he also handled a lot of counterfeit money cases. He says that federal code — specifically Title 18, Section 474 — strictly prohibits most reproductions of U.S. currency. And the Counterfeit Detection Act of 1992 lays out several restrictions on prop money in particular.

KESSLER: It actually needs to be one and a half times the size or less than three quarters the size. And here’s the kicker: it has to be printed only on one side. None of these novelty notes are printed on one side. They’re always both.

By definition, the Secret Service considers most prop money on the market to be counterfeit. But the rules are not strictly enforced when it comes to movie money, because there’s no intent to pass it as counterfeit.

KESSLER: Could they potentially be charged? Absolutely. But you’re not going to find a taste for that within the U.S. attorney’s offices. Even the Secret Service agents that are out there looking — we’re not out to penalize and try to arrest the owners of the promotional notes companies. The reality is nobody wants to make a reproduction that fits inside the lawful description, right? Because, to have a movie where you have a bill that’s one and a half times the size, it’s going to be noticeable on screen, for sure.

This selective enforcement means the market for prop money operates in a grey area. As long as fake bill purveyors like Rappaport take precautions to distinguish their money as props, they can usually stay out of trouble. If you take a close look at the money RJR Props sells, the tells are easy to spot: the signatures for the Treasurer of the United States and the Secretary of the Treasury are replaced with the names “Ima Not Real” and “Not Real Currency”; the words “Unreal fake currency reserve” are written across the top left corner; and “United States of America” is replaced with “For Motion Picture Use Only.”

RAPPAPORT: We have 17 design changes on the front side and 11 design changes on the back side that are completely different. All artwork was replaced and redesigned from scratch — the security seals, the security features, the threads, the micro print, holograms and watermarks. They cannot be a copy of anything that’s there.

RJR Props sells bills in every denomination — from $1 up to $100. You can get it either double-sided or printed just on one side. Depending on what you want, a stack of 100 notes will set you back $45 to $85 in real money. And despite all the changes, Rappaport’s money looks incredibly convincing on film.

RAPPAPORT: When you see it on camera it has to be perfect. And I’m getting into the secret sauce a little bit but, one of the things we have is an optical illusion. So when the camera picks it up from, say, 12 inches or 15 inches away or further, it looks absolutely realistic. Okay? It’s spot on.

He even sells a version that’s aged and weathered.

RAPPAPORT: Real money is going to have cigarette burns in it. It’s going to be dog–eared. Some of them look like they’re much rougher and they’ve been almost shredded and others are newer.

Rappaport’s money has appeared in films like Fast and Furious and Wolf of Wall Street, and the Netflix series Ozark, where hundreds of millions of dollars in drug money are stacked inside the walls of a house. It also shows up in videos by some of the biggest names in rap and hip hop — like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Lil Baby.

RAPPAPORT: They’ll come in and throw money around, or will have money that’s raining down, while they’re filming.

Rappaport says most of those huge stacks of cash you see celebrities posing with are props. For instance, when the rapper 50 Cent filed for bankruptcy in 2016, his lawyer had to admit that the money in his Instagram posts wasn’t real. Now, it is legal to use real money on a film set. But the liability often isn’t worth it.

RAPPAPORT: If they were to just bring 25 stacks of hundreds, let’s say, to a production, that would be a quarter million dollars. And if they got fans going, and it’s blowing around in the studio, it’s just too easy to lose it. I know a few artists that actually bring real money. They also bring some very big bodyguards to make sure that every nickel and dime is accounted for.

Rappaport says he only sells directly to production companies — folks who make movies, TV shows, or music videos. He doesn’t like to deal with the general public.

RAPPAPORT: If we get a 12 year old kid that calls up and says, “I want to do a practical joke,” — just no, not doing it. Because we know the practical joke means he’s going to Wal-Mart to spend it.

Turns out, this is a pretty valid fear. A growing number of online sellers have made it easier than ever to buy prop money. And it’s being passed as real currency at alarming rates. That’s coming up.

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Here’s a clip from the Instagram account of an online prop money company based in Miami, Florida.

CLIP: “These are freaking badass. Check out the new style $20 dollar full print prop money. These are full prints so every single bill looks like the real deal Guys, you can’t find more realistic, quality-looking prop money on the internet…”

The company is called Prop Movie Money. C.E.O. Juan Amaya and his business partner started it ten years ago. At the time, they were both producing content for car dealerships and making a feature-length film on the side. They needed some money for their production — and they decided to make it themselves. Prop Movie Money was one of the first companies to sell prop money on Amazon. Like Rich Rappaport, Amaya has gone to great lengths to make sure his product is above board.

AMAYA: So, right off the bat, you know, all our bills pretty much say loudly, “This is not legal tender. For motion picture use only.” The portraits are our own characters. Like, the Benjamin Franklin on our hundred-dollar bill — his nickname is Benny. And you know, he’s got a specific type of look with his lips and everything like that. We’ve got “Alexander Hamil-chin,” because he’s got a massive chin. We do props for the D.E.A. We do props for the U.S. government. We do props for a lot of police departments. Sometimes for training purposes. Sometimes they don’t really say. A lot of the new customers that we’ve gotten over the years, a lot of them are influencers. They’re rising stars on either TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, even Snapchat. Some have made short films. Some make pranks. Some create really in-depth financial literacy courses. There’s people just buying it just to put on their nightstand for motivation.

While prop money was once only available to production companies, today anyone can buy it online. And this new market has opened the floodgates for dozens of bad actors, who use the words “prop money” as a guise to sell actual counterfeit currency on Amazon and Alibaba. Glen Kessler, the ex-Secret Service agent, says he noticed a big spike in these online prop money sellers around 2017.

KESSLER: In the cases of these motion picture-use-only notes, I just searched last night just to see — and it’s generally $10,000 package for about $10 on Amazon.

Most of this prop money comes from overseas. It’s illegally imported in large volumes, and much of it goes undetected in customs searches.

KESSLER: In June of this year, actually, just a couple of months ago, there was a border search of some boxes that had originated from China. And Customs and Border Protection agents discovered over $14.3 million in motion-picture-use-only notes, coming in from China.

In recent years, the Secret Service has reported a 25 percent surge in cases of prop money being passed as real currency. It’s become such a big problem that Senator Chuck Schumer called on online retailers like Amazon to delist prop money from their platforms. If you run a quick internet search, you’ll find stories of prop money crimes in nearly every state, from Maine to Washington. Police departments around the country   have reported that it’s been used to buy cars, pizza, marijuana, and even horse trailers. In one recent case, $1 million in prop money was stolen from a car in Oregon and circulated at local businesses. And last year, an employee at a Home Depot in Phoenix was accused of swapping in prop money before sending the store’s deposit to the their bank.

KESSLER: As he would process a deposit, he would take out the real hundreds and replace it with fake hundreds. He did that to the tune of $400,000.

Even though much of this prop money is clearly doctored and feels fake to the touch, retailers often accept it by accident.

KESSLER: If you’re trying to pass to a clerk or teller or a shop owner that’s not paying attention — they’ve got a long line, they’re just taking the money and handing out the change — a lot of times it’s very easy to pass these off. So you have a small store that brings in $5-600 a day, they get a couple of counterfeit hundreds multiple times that month — obviously it’s impacting their bottom line.

Stories like this are haunting for honest prop money providers like Juan Amaya and Rich Rappaport.

RAPPAPORT: When people see prop money showing up in their town, getting spent at stores, it just gives prop money a bad name. The players who are putting illegal prop money out there — you know, they’re really bringing disrespect to the industry, and they’re hurting everyone.

All of this — the painstaking custom designs, the constant back and forth with federal officials, the unscrupulous overseas competition — it’s a lot to worry about for something as seemingly innocuous as prop money. And it doesn’t really yield a big payoff. Amaya says that the cost of the paper alone can make or break his profit margin. He only prints his products once or twice a month to control his overhead.

AMAYA: The cost of making them the ink, the paper, the hours of printing, cutting. If we’re talking like a single stack, which normally has about a hundred bills, they can go up to like $20. Which is wild, because, we sell some of them for like $25.

And that thin profit margin is only achieved if everything goes right. Remember that Rush Hour 2 explosion? The company that provided that prop money ended up getting a cease and desist letter from the feds. Its entire inventory of prop money had to be destroyed at a cost in the six figures.

More than 20 years after Rush Hour 2, the company still can’t print its own prop money.

RAPPAPORT: It cost the vendor a massive, massive amount of money That was a terrible situation and people tremble at the thought of it. 

Rappaport is the first to admit that prop money can be a pain in the ass. For him, it’s also something of a loss leader — a service he provides to customers in the hopes that they’ll use his other, more lucrative props. Props that maybe don’t require input from the Secret Service.

RAPPAPORT: It’s not the kind of thing you make a lot of money on. it’s near and dear to my heart. It has an effect on people. It brings, like, this exhilarating, emotional gut response from everyone that sees it.

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston.

CROCKETT: You ever think about getting into the counterfeit business?

RAPPAPORT: No, thank you. The fastest answer ever. I’m not — no. Just no, thanks.

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  • Juan Amaya, C.E.O. of Prop Movie Money.
  • Glen Kessler, security director of corporate security intelligence and risk analysis at Wells Fargo, former special agent in charge for the U.S. Secret Service.
  • Rich Rappaport, president of RJR Props.



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