Currency Recognition Glitches

Our readers report their experiences with service level employees unfamiliar with currency.

Introduction:   Almost the moment we listed the Taco Bell $2 bill story on our site, readers wrote in to report their experiences with service level employees unfamiliar with currency. What follows are some of their tales.

This reminds me of something that happened to me about 10 years ago. I was in Washington DC, the heart of our nation, and I was buying lunch at a McDonalds, not 6 blocks from the White House.

The bill was about $3.50 and I handed the cashier 4 Susan B. Anthony dollars I had with me. She looked at them and took them to here manager.

She returned shortly, handed them back to me and said, “I’m sorry, sir, we only accept American money.”

In the mid to late 1980s I was in a McDonalds in Springfield, IL, and paid for a $3.22 item with a $5.00 bill, getting $1.78 in change. Something felt funny, and a closer examination revealed one of the three “quarters” was actually a Susan B. Anthony dollar. I tried to return it, the counter person called the shift manager, and the final decision was that since it came in as a quarter, it was going out as a quarter.
Further, the cost to reconcile and adjust the cash drawer for the extra $0.75 would have been greater that $0.75, hardly cost effective! The good news is that at least they recognized it as real.

Last month I went to McDonalds and ordered a meal. The only banknote I had was a 50 EUR (I live in France – 50 EUR roughly equals 50 USD). The server first prepared the meal (whose price was around 5 EUR), and then asked for payment. When I gave him the fifty, he looked worried about it, then called his manager. The manager asked me : “Haven’t you got anything else?” I said no. Then it took him a while to think about the decision he had to make, and he finally said : “Well, I’m offering you this meal”. Visibly, he hadn’t any mean of verifying that the banknote was genuine, and he didn’t want to take the risk of giving me about 45 EUR back over a faked banknote. On the other hand, the meal was already prepared, so he
offered it to me rather than throwing it in the trash!

I said to myself : “Well, who said there’s no free lunch? This seems to be an efficient technique!” However, I tried it at some other McDonalds restaurants, and there, the servers gave me the money back over a fifty without hesitating.

Your Taco Bell/$2 bill piece intrigues me, because I saw it (or an incident very much like it) happen. It was about 1990 and I was in the Navy in New London, Connecticut. I went down to the mall with my roommate, [name deleted], and we stopped at Taco Bell. He tried to pay for his dinner with a couple of bills that included a $2 bill, and the guy did ask the manager about it, and the manager did refuse it. My memory is fuzzy, but I seem to recall that we both just shook our heads and [name deleted] paid for dinner with a $20, but I could be mistaken.

Haven’t spoken to [name deleted] in almost a decade, I wonder if he’s Captain Sarcastic. Anyway, just wanted to fill you in.

Thank you so much for the piece you posted about the $2 bill at Taco Bell. I had the same experience at a Burger King.

In addition, I had a McDonalds employee AND manager refuse to accept a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. The amazing thing in this instance was that the McDonalds was right across the street from Penn Station in New York City. The automated ticket machines routinely dispense dollar coins (SB Anthony’s and Sacagawea) as change.

I had a similar experience to the $2 bill at Taco Bell. I was working in a sporting goods store with a high school kid. He called me to the register, freaked out that he had done something wrong. He showed me an old-style $20 bill (you know, one of those that’s about 5 years old, with the smaller picture of Jackson), and asked “Is this real? I didn’t look at it closely when I took it.”

Scary. Utterly scary.

I don’t know if the story about the $2 bill at the Taco Bell is true or not, but this one is absolutely true. When the Sacajawea dollar coin was first issued (January 2000), a friend gave me a few. I didn’t want to spend them, but one night going home late, I found it was the only money I had on me to pay the toll on Georgia 400. The tollkeeper, a woman, wouldn’t take it. I insisted it was perfectly good, a new dollar coin. She insisted equally firmly that it was not a coin and she would not take it. I told her to call her supervisor, and listened amused as she described the funny money. I don’t know how many supervisors she had to go through, but she eventually allowed me to pay the toll with the dollar coin.

When I was in college (at WPI in 1992), a burglar broke into my apartment during the night and took my wallet off my desk. He also took my 6 roomates’ wallets. He went to the kitchen and stole the cash from them (which wasn’t much: We were all college students).

The punch line: He left approximately $14 in my wallet! One American $2 bill, one each Canadian $2 and $10 bills, and one Canadian $1 “loonie” coin. So apparently this thief too thought that either there’s no such thing as a $2 bill, or that it wasn’t worth stealing. I’m betting on the former…

I once had a subway (sandwich shop) employee refuse a $20 bill from me because it didn’t have the foil strip woven into it — never mind the fact that it was printed years before the strips were used.

I liked the $2 bill story and find it completely plausible. Indeed, something similar happened to me at a Macy’s store in New Jersey several years ago. My then-girlfriend (now wife) had gone to a different department for a moment and I used the opportunity to buy her a small gift with which I would later surprise her. I tried to pay for it with, among other forms of currency, a Susan B. Anthony dollar. The conversation with the (female) cashier went something like this:

CASHIER: What’s that?
ME: It’s a Susan B. Anthony Dollar.
CASHIER: I’ve never heard of that. I can’t take that.
ME: Why not?
CASHIER: Because I’ve never heard of it.

If not for the fact that my girlfriend’s return was imminent, I would have made a scene and asked to speak to the cashier’s supervisor. Instead, I simply used other currency. I’ve often wondered whether the cashier had never heard of Susan B. Anthony or simply did not know that there was a coin bearing her likeness. I take it that the cashier was not much interested in voting anyhow.

I had a similar experience the first time I went to pay for something back in the 80’s with that awful $1 coin they used to mint that was the same size as a quarter. It was a lot simpler than this, they actually thought I had given them a quarter.

And, the first time I presented a Sacajawea dollar I got perplexed looks as well.

Oddly enough, this one happened to a friend of mine at the Taco Bell in Springfield Mall in Virginia. Not that I’m claiming that this nugget refers to that incident, since it happened in 1996 or so. I was there when it happened. My friend tried to pay for a taco with a $2 bill and they wouldn’t accept it because “There is no such thing as a $2 bill”. Just like in the anecdote, a security guard was called to clear the matter up.

Anyway, the incident with my friend involved much less witty dialogue and happened several years after this Legend first appeared, so it’s obviously not the same thing. I’m just sharing that it has and does happen ;)

For several years I worked at Blockbuster Video as an Asst. Manager and quite a few times I had CSR’s (cashiers) call me over because they either were handed a $2 or an old bill from the 1940s or earlier and they thought they weren’t legit since they’d never seen them before. Once I had a cashier nearly break down in tears because she accepted a $20 from 1934 during our busy hours, having not looked at it closely until much later and was certain that it was bogus. It took me quite a while to calm her down and explain it to her.

So I can completely believe that a manager out there was just as clueless, especially if they’re young.

Last updated:   17 May 2011