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Economy & Business

The Office Where Mutilated Money Gets Repaired


OK, Mary Louise, ready for some radio magic?


Uh, always.


MARTIN: Hear that? That's the sound of a dollar bill...

KELLY: Crinkle, crinkle.

MARTIN: ...People. That's money right there. It's a dollar bill. I've got it in my hands. Lots of thought has gone into making this bill just the way it is. It also is just a blend of paper and linen. It's fragile. It's easy to rip. You can burn it, put it through the wash - happens all the time. And even when a bill gets ruined, it is still considered money. Elizabeth Kulas of our Planet Money podcast reports.

ELIZABETH KULAS, BYLINE: Dan Deming lives on an old farm in Wisconsin. It's been in his family for generations. And there was always this legend that the previous owner had buried his life savings somewhere on the property.

DAN DEMING: There is actually spots in the basement here where my grandfather tried to bust up the concrete to find money.

KULAS: He never found anything. But then, years later, Dan was knocking down this 100-year-old chicken coop out in the yard.

DEMING: I see a box tipped over with a bunch of pieces of paper on the ground. The first thing that popped in my head was, it wasn't a story. It was real.

KULAS: An old metal box filled with this rotten, moldy money.

DEMING: Some of it was just so degraded you couldn't even tell.

KULAS: Dan's bank would not take his money, but they did know someone who would. So they sent it back to the place where it came from, to the U.S. Treasury, an office there called the Mutilated Currency Division. It's basically the customer service department for the dollar bill. Packages like Dan's make their way to this big room a few blocks from the Washington Monument. There are eight employees working away at desks. They're called currency examiners. One of them is Kehlan Cotton. He's got a pile of charred bricks in front of him. Someone had just sent them in the mail.

KEHLAN COTTON: This currency is actually burned. They're claiming $100,000.


KULAS: Someone sent you $100,000 in priority mail box?

COTTON: Yes, yeah.

KULAS: Kehlan doesn't pull out a laser or a microscope to get through this stack of bills. He pulls out a chisel, like something that you'd find at a hardware store. He turns it over, takes the wooden handle and just starts rolling it back and forth.

COTTON: This actually - rolling it actually makes the currency lose.

KULAS: It's low tech, but it works. The stack starts to loosen up. He can pull apart individual bills. When he's done, he'll count up the fragments and reimburse the amount that he can identify.

The office gets all kinds of cases. Eric Walsh is a manager. He's worked here for 13 years. He's seen a lot.

ERIC WALSH: We had a farmer who - his cow ate his wallet. We always encourage to mail it in in its original package. So he actually shipped in the cow's stomach containing the wallet.

KULAS: The cow didn't make it. Also...

WALSH: We get a lot of animal-chewed currency.

KULAS: By which he means, yes, people do send in animal poop with money in it.

WALSH: We do return those and have them please wash them off before they send it to us.

KULAS: If the people in this room can count your money and they think it's real, they will redeem it. It's this amazing service, and it's free. It's a public service, one way the government stands behind the dollar bill and says, this is not just a piece of paper; it's an IOU. And we will be there when bad things happen to good bills. Every year, they reimburse $30 million to thousands of people. Dan Deming, with his chicken coop money, was one of them.

DEMING: It was probably almost exactly a year later. And one day, it just showed up, 3,300, some odd change.

KULAS: The Mutilated Currency Division wired that money right into Dan's account. They know better than to deal in cash. Elizabeth Kulas, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.