The coin shop owner couldn't control his trembling hands, so hid them behind the counter. His mouth had grown parched; his stomach, queasy.
The customer seemed as relaxed as a pocket of jingling change. He was the size of a lineman, with a trim goatee and sunglasses atop his head. On Friday, Aug. 30, he had strolled into Golden Isles Coins in Raleigh with a bundle of silver dollars and a polished backstory. On a normal day, no one would think he was a professional counterfeiter.
But three area shops had been fleeced that week by a sinewy man hawking fake silver dollars. Now, upon seeing 26 shiny American Eagles spread across his own counter, the Golden Isles shopkeeper thought, That's the guy.
The owner's name is Don. The 46-year-old asked that only his middle name be used for fear of retribution. A former factory worker from Buffalo, N.Y., he has run Golden Isles since 1999. He started collecting coins as a 7-year-old, mesmerized by their different designs and histories. Later, factory work dried up, so he moved south and began selling coins in flea markets.
He felt a sense of duty to his profession, so as the customer with the silver dollars began his sales pitch, Don was determined to keep him in the store until police arrived.
The customer's name was Patrick Chambers. Forty-four years old, he hailed from Mooresville, N.C., north of Charlotte. He already faced several charges after police discovered $880,000 worth of steroids, along with copious amounts of pot, in his home.
Between Aug. 27 and Aug. 29, a man matching Chambers' description sold more than $4,000 worth of counterfeit goods to Raleigh and Cary shops. "Some of the best jobs I've ever seen," said Dave Beck of Plaza West Jewelry & Loan. "A real professional criminal," said Steve Baldridge of Steve's Coins & Collectibles. During the middle of negotiations, someone called the con man's cellphone pretending to be his ailing mother, Baldridge recalled.
In each case, the fake loot shared a common element: copper. According to national coin experts, copper-to-silver counterfeiting is increasing, originating in China.
"The last two years have become a really big problem [for silver-plated copper]," said Doug Davis, a former Texas police chief and the president of the Numismatic Crime Information Center in Arlington, Texas.
For several years, scam artists ordered fake gold products on eBay, but the auctioning giant recently cracked down on the practice. Now counterfeiters visit Chinese websites offering coin "reproductions," which is legal, according to James Buicki of Coins.About.com.
"They're getting so good they're actually counterfeiting the certificates and boxes as if they were packaged at the U.S. mint," said Davis.
As the value of the dollar has dropped, the value of precious metals such as gold and, more recently, silver has risen. In July, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat representing parts of Durham and northeastern North Carolina, introduced H.R. 1849, the Collectible Coin Protection Act. Among other aims, it seeks to curb the sale of counterfeited rare coins from China. It passed the House and is scheduled to go before the Senate.
Golden Isles Coins sits in a strip mall next to Dry Clean City, a favorite place for state and city law enforcement personnel to get their uniforms cleaned, according to employees.
At about noon on Aug. 30, Chambers pulled into the parking lot in a white sedan that was stripped of after-market emblems. The only identifying marker, perched above the trunk keyhole, was a sticker portraying—appropriately—an eagle.
Chambers entered Golden Isles and stood near a statuette of a pirate. He started talking with Don.
An associate, aware of the situation, slipped outside to notify an off-duty state trooper, who was leaving the dry cleaners. The trooper's response: Wait 10 minutes.
Inside, meanwhile, Chambers was explaining he had inherited the coins from his father. The counterfeiting was superb, Don thought—professional, not a garage job. The weight was nearly perfect.
Searching for a way to kill time, Don said, "What else you got? I'm a cash buyer."
Chambers went to his car and returned with a box with Chinese lettering. He pulled out 25 silver bars. Moments later, a police cruiser pulled into the parking lot. At last, Don thought.
An officer got out of the car and went into the dry cleaners.
Don announced he was thirsty. He went into the back for a few deep breaths. His associate called the police.
Don returned to the counter and told Chambers, "Let's put this on paper." He slowly jotted down figures, scribbling each coin's year—normally unimportant information. Total sale price: $1,410.
Chambers agreed. Don said, "Now let's make it official," and ripped off a ledger sheet with company letterhead. He copied the figures from the scrap paper. He meandered into the back room, returning with $1,000. He peeled off each bill one-by-one.
"I'll need to go to the bank," he said.
"I'll take a check," said Chambers.
Don disappeared to get a checkbook. When he returned, Chambers' phone was ringing, and an officer was strolling through the door.
Don told the officer Chambers was attempting to sell counterfeit goods. To prove it, he rubbed one of the coins with a stone, revealing what lay underneath: red copper.
Police ran a background check, saw Chambers had pending charges in Mecklenburg County and arrested him. Last week he was transferred to the Mecklenburg County Jail, where he is being held on a $550,000 bond. In addition to 16 drug charges, he faces counterfeiting charges in Wake County.
Don said it was the most exciting day of his career.
"Mr. Chambers plays a great game of poker. But he didn't know we had four aces."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tails, you lose."