Late last year I wrote this post concerning the fact that I’d accidentally ripped a $20 bill in half and didn’t quite know what to do with its “dead body.” The bisected bill had already chilled on my desk for months at that point, and continued to sit buried under papers and envelopes for months after the publishing of that post. I simply didn’t feel like dealing with it. I didn’t want to have some kind of embarrassing encounter at the bank.
Should I even bother taping it back together? I wondered at the time, never bothering to do any real research on the matter. What were the official rules pertaining to bisected or torn paper money? Was there a rule in place to keep me from cashing each half individually at different banks, thus turning my $20 into $40?
In theory, I surmised, I could find two gullible, unaffiliated bank tellers and pass off my bill halves as two separate $20 bills. I could simply tell the respective bankers that I’d simply lost the “other“ half. Because at what point does a $20 bill lose its value completely? At what point does it get demoted back to “ripped piece of paper,” completely valueless money-wise? Common sense says that as long as you have more than 50% of the bill it could possibly retain its original value.
But what if the bank teller can’t quite tell if the bill’s at the 50% mark or not? What if it’s a close call? Maybe it just kinda sorta looks like half of a bill, but the tear zig-zags and so it’s hard to tell. This being the case, the teller might make the wrong call and give you full credit for 49% of a paper note. You can thus double your money if you get equally lucky with the other ripped-half (assuming you take it to a completely different bank, of course).
Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking. If the monetary value for torn-dollar-halves fell under the jurisdiction of individual bank tellers, some of whom might not be a sharp as others, then surely somewhere out there some Sneaky Pete, at one point or another, has managed to successfully “double his money.”
But really, I didn’t actually believe such a decision would be left to mere humans. Deep down I assumed there was some ironclad process outlined in the Bank Bible that allowed for a more structured and reliable method of judgement re: ripped-bill halves. Or else human error would certainly instigate a chaos wave that would eventually throttle the whole works. Our society would destabilize and collapse and the scary Amazon delivery drones would inherit the Earth.
But I was wrong.
There’s no fool-proof technique to inform the decision. No high tech machine that eats the dollar-half and makes a decision based on the weight and and shape and mass. No relative payment system based on salvaged percentage of physical bill. It’s all or nothing, and the decision is left up to the individual bank tellers after all.
I know this because recently, I worked up enough nerve and/or snit-laziness-points to tape my $20 bill back together and take it to my bank for a deposit (actually, I did it a few months ago but I’m only “recently” writing about it). And while at the bank I made sure to pick the teller’s brain about my dollar-doubling daydreams. And don’t worry, I made sure to word my query in such a way as to not set off any red flags, as I’m no Sneaky Pete.
At the end of the day, the ripped-dollar value judgement—if only a fraction of the bill is available—is based entirely on common sense. There’s no Manchurian Candidate brain-conditioning to assure consistency on the part of the bank clerks. According to my clerk, the decision is made by common sense alone. If most of the bill is there, they’ll give you full credit. If it seems a little sketchy, you’re out of luck. His call.
My teller didn’t elaborate on what he meant by “most,” but I took it to mean “way more than half.” So, if you show up to the bank with approximately a half of a paper bank note, most likely your teller will just tell you you’re out of luck, pal. It’s worthless paper—find the other half or else use use the thing to wipe your bum. Again, I had both halves, nicely taped together, so he didn’t give me any trouble at all. My famous “Darth Maul” $20 bill incident is finally resolved!
But as I said, my teller didn’t elaborate on what he’d meant by most of it. Surely “most of it” allows for a certain amount of wiggle-room insofar as a bank clerk’s judgement is concerned. And this worries me a little, because it leaves the door open for shysters, and therefore our society stands on a wobbly foundation after all. Cue the drones.
Because what if some really tenacious trickster decided to scissor-up three separate $20 bills, and then, from little expendable strips borrowed from each one, create a fourth $20 bill, featuring “most” of the mass of a typical bill? Certainly, it would take a lot of Scotch tape and lot of time and a very dumb bank teller, but it seems like it’s possible. Worth it, probably not; but possible, maybe.