Adrian Jean Pineda had an entry-level job at a Home Depot in 2018, working as a vault associate in Tempe, Ariz., in charge of counting the money from registers, placing it in sealed bags and depositing it at a local Wells Fargo Bank.
Over the next four years, however, the bank found $100 bills from the store’s deposits with “PLAYMONEY” written as a serial number — a clear sign of prop currency, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court.
The problem continued, losses ballooned and, in December, Home Depot contacted the U.S. Secret Service. The agency charged Mr. Pineda last month with swapping $387,500 of the store’s real cash with fake bills.
“He was just in a really good position to do the crime,” Frank Boudreaux Jr., the special agent in charge with the U.S. Secret Service’s office in Phoenix, said on Sunday. He added that it was rare that someone would pass so much counterfeit money before being caught.
Messages left at phone numbers listed as belonging to Mr. Pineda were not immediately returned on Sunday. A manager at the store where Mr. Pineda worked declined to be interviewed, and a company representative could not be immediately reached.
The scheme began in January 2018, according to the complaint, and started to unravel late last year after Home Depot detected a large number of fake bills coming from one particular store, Mr. Boudreaux said.
Mr. Pineda bought from Amazon prop $100 bills, which are used for parties and pranks and in television and movie productions. The bills are accurately scaled to size and contain text found on real ones. He brought to work about $800 to $1,200 of the fake currency at a time, Mr. Boudreaux said.
After cashiers brought Mr. Pineda the day’s receipts from the registers, he would swap real bills with fake ones, shoving crumpled fistfuls of real money into his pocket, the complaint said. Video surveillance cameras caught him doing this at least 16 times, the complaint said.
The prop bills, which cost $8.96 for a pack of 100 individual $100 bills, look “highly realistic,” Mr. Boudreaux said. They feature a perfectly printed Benjamin Franklin and, next to his face, a vertical blue line, similar to the 3-D security ribbon found on actual bills.
But the similarities stop when it comes to texture. Real bills, which are made of cotton and linen, have a thicker feel. Fake bills feel papery, like a page out of a notebook, Mr. Boudreaux said.
Still, the prop bills that Amazon and other stores sell do cause trouble for investigators. “I wish they didn’t sell it,” Mr. Boudreaux said.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.
As Mr. Pineda racked up more and more real money, his lifestyle began to exceed the typical budget for someone in his position, Mr. Boudreaux said. For instance, he paid for a personal trainer and a new car.
“It was evident that he was spending much more than he was making,” said Mr. Boudreaux, who did not know how much Mr. Pineda was earning.
When Mr. Boudreaux and his colleagues began their investigation, they subpoenaed Mr. Pineda’s Amazon records and found a peculiar and revealing statistic. The total worth of all the fake bills Mr. Pineda had bought was roughly the same as the total loss attributed to fake money at the Home Depot store.
“So that kind of tied it all together,” Mr. Boudreaux said.
At about 4 a.m. on Jan. 31, Mr. Pineda arrived at work to begin his shift. That’s when a Home Depot manager confronted him, according to the complaint, which said that Mr. Pineda admitted to the manager that he had indeed been swapping the money.
Mr. Pineda was charged with a violation of the federal code known as uttering of counterfeit U.S. currency, according to a news release. Mr. Pineda, who is scheduled to appear in court on Monday, has agreed to pay restitution, Mr. Boudreaux said.
At the time of Mr. Pineda’s arrest, Secret Service agents seized $5,000 in counterfeit money and recovered $5,300 in genuine currency. An additional $22,000 in real currency was recovered at Mr. Pineda’s home.
Mr. Pineda was able to get away with the scheme for so long, Mr. Boudreaux said, because “he bypassed the first layer of counterfeit detection — the cashier.”