A gas station in northern Laos reported that a customer passed 14 fake 50,000 kip bills (worth US$2.34 each) to fill up the car’s gas tank, the owner of the establishment told Radio Free Asia.

It’s one of many incidents of counterfeit bills surfacing at businesses in the region since the national bank’s April 26 warning that fake bills were circulating in the country.

The problem seems to be most acute in the north, around the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, a de facto Chinese-controlled tourist zone centered on the Kings Romans Casino in Bokeo province.

“When we touched the bank notes, we could feel the difference. They also don’t look authentic,” the gas station owner, from the same province, who like all anonymous sources in this report requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA Lao.

He said shortly afterward, bank employees came to receive a payment from the business. When the bills were run through a counting machine, they did not pass muster. The bank confiscated all but one of the counterfeit notes.

“We kept only one for future reference,” he said.

A customer buys spends money at a flea market in Vientiane Prefecture, Laos, in January 2024. (RFA)

In Laos, the 50,000-kip note is the most frequently used, and the 100,000 kip note (worth $4.68) is the highest denomination. 

With the rapid depreciation of the kip and soaring inflation, people now have to carry around large numbers of bills for many purchases or transactions.

Seems widespread

One day after the visit from the bank, the bank employees returned to the gas station with police to investigate. They said they were still not sure who was behind the counterfeiting scheme, which seems widespread.

A storekeeper in Bokeo said eight counterfeit bills were discovered at her store.

“Somebody must have spent them at our store. I don’t remember who it was because we have so many customers,” she said. “I found out when I deposited the money at our bank.”

A customer buys spends money at a flea market in Vientiane Prefecture, Laos, in January 2024. (RFA)

The bank double-checked all the notes in her deposit and called her with the bad news, she said. She gave all the information she had to the bank to help with their investigation.

A bank employee from Bokeo said that every single note, either Lao or foreign is carefully checked.

“In the time since the national bank issued the warning, we luckily haven’t received any fake bank notes,” the bank employee said.

Tips on how to detect them

A national bank official confirmed that they issued the warning and offered tips on how to detect counterfeit currency.

“First, touch it. The fake ones are softer,” he said.  “Second, look at it through light. You’ll see a series of dark lines embedded in the real bank notes, while the fake ones don’t have lines.”

The national bank last year issued similar warnings about counterfeit 100,000-kip, 50,000-kip and 1,000 Thai baht ($27) notes surfacing nationwide.

In April 2019, police in the town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos arrested three Chinese nationals for spending counterfeit 50,000-kip and 100,000-kip banknotes at a market.

According to Lao law, those caught making fake bills can be jailed between five to 15 years and fined between 50 million to 500 million kip ($2,340-$23,400). Those caught using the bills can be jailed between three months and five years, and fined between 2 million and 5 million kip ($94-$234).

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