Web Site Lets Users Track Where Their Dollars Go --
By Liz Enochs
Brookline, Massachusetts, Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Most dollar bills are anonymous. All but about 15 million of them.
That's how many ones -- and fives, tens, twenties and hundreds -- have had their journeys around the U.S. and the world chronicled at www.wheresgeorge.com, a Web site that lets the curious follow their money as it flows through the economy.
The three-year-old site has brought couples together, sparked friendships and inspired classroom projects. It's tracked bills from Natchez, Mississippi, to Santa Monica, California, and from Pittsburgh to Keflavik, Iceland.
"People have told me it's nice to find a highly interactive diversion on the Internet where I'm not trying to sell them anything and I'm not trying to profit off them," said Hank Eskin, 37, the site's creator. "It's just fun."
The site has attracted more than a million users. Some are inquisitive about where that five dollar bill they found in the laundromat came from. Others are so obsessive they've spent months recording the serial numbers off thousands of bills in the online database. One user entered more than 121,000.
Enthusiasts usually stamp currency with the Web site's address and a note asking anyone who finds it to record the serial number and the zip code where they spent it. Fans of the site track "hits" as subsequent users log in the numbers.
The practice doesn't violate any laws. While defacing currency is illegal, merely stamping or writing on bills doesn't fit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing's definition of an improper act: intentionally rendering currency unfit to be used.
"I used to mark bills when I was a kid, thinking I might get one back one day," said Colleen Spiegler, 31. She became a registered user of the Web site in mid-1999, about six months after it was started.
Marriage and Money
The Pittsburgh resident is now married to an ex-boyfriend who contacted her after he saw her photo in an article about the Web site. "There are so many goals you can reach -- like getting all 50 states," she said. She has seen dollar bills she entered in the database travel to Korea, Puerto Rico, Iceland and the Arctic Circle.
"It's always fulfilling to get one more of those hits," said Spiegler, who has entered the serial numbers for more than 16,000 bills on the site. "I'm waiting for a hit in Guam."
The Web site tracks about $89 million of the $584 billion in U.S. paper currency that is in circulation worldwide. Just $195 billion of that is in the U.S., according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
"I was going to lunch one day and I had a dollar bill in my pocket that had a message written around the edge of it that said, 'Write this message on 10 other dollar bills and good luck will come to you,"' said Eskin, who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. "I wondered who wrote this on the bill and where did it come from."
Unique Serial Number
It occurred to Eskin that each bill has a unique serial number. "In a flash" the idea of a Web site that could track bills was born, he said. Eskin, a computer database consultant, spends about 20 hours a week working on the site. He used the project to learn how to develop databases that could work on the Internet.
Though Eskin started the site in December 1998, it didn't start telling stories until he added a feature that allows people to record user notes about each bill. "Someone will say, 'I found this bill in the collection plate at church,' and then the very next entry is, 'I got this at a strip club,"' Eskin said. "Those kinds of juxtapositions of entries are hilarious."
Even dollar bills that don't go abroad take some circuitous journeys. One George -- as dollar bills with the image of George Washington are called in the Web site's vernacular -- started its travels at a cinema in Natchez, Mississippi, in January 2000. Four months later it bought shoes in Santa Monica, California. In November, it purchased lunch at a school in Warren, Michigan.
By the time this George landed in Twin Rocks, Pennsylvania, this month, it was looking wrinkled and old. And no wonder: The average dollar bill only circulates for a year and a half, according to the Fed. The George from Natchez lasted at least six months longer.
Abes and Bens
Abes (fives, with Abe Lincoln on the front) usually live at least two years outside of bank vaults, and Bens (for Benjamin Franklin, pictured on the hundred-dollar bill) circulate the longest, at nine years, Fed statistics show.
One user created a Where's George encyclopedia to list all the slang that's sprung up among devotees. A "boomerang" is a bill that was entered in one city, traveled to someplace far away, and then returned to the original city. A "sleeper" is a bill that takes more than 100 days to get a hit.
A "Naked George" is a hit with a user note suggesting it was spent or received at a strip club or massage parlor.
The site also measures how fast money moves. The Natchez George, for instance, traveled at 0.8 miles an hour on its 1,500- mile journey to Santa Monica.
Economists have used measures of velocity, or the rate at which money changes hands, to get clues about where consumer incomes are heading. Eskin's database, since it counts on user interest to get bills entered into the Web site, isn't scientific enough to give economists much new information, said Richard G. Anderson, an economist with the St. Louis Fed Bank.
Still, "It sounds like an interesting toy," Anderson said.
©2002 Bloomberg L.P.
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Tim Marshall, a consultant, is on the road three weeks out of four and averages about 1,500 miles per trip.
But his money travels even more, winding up in places such as a Boston strip club and even Alaska.
The Oviedo resident and two of his four daughters follow the money on Where's George? (wheresgeorge.com), an electronic registry that tracks the flow of paper currency through the U.S. economy.
"My wife thinks we're nuts," says Marshall, 44, whose preoccupation with the movement of money is shared by daughters Erin, 14, and Madeline, 10.
"We log on several times a week to see where our money travels. We have a 5-foot map . . . and we've put colored thumbtacks in the 30 states where our bills have been found."
The Marshalls are among the more than 1.2 million registered users of Where's George?, a 3-year-old site created and run by Hank Eskin, 37, of Brookline, Mass.
Growing at the rate of 1,800 new users a day, Where's George? is the hub in the expanding world of pecquiologists, or people who track money on the Internet. The term was coined by a Where's George? user who combined the Latin terms for money (pecunia), follow (sequi) and science (logia).
These persistent pecquiologists have followed the movement of nearly 19 million bills in the United States and Canada, Eskin says.
"People just get addicted. It's a hobby. It's fun. It's free. And it's a highly interactive Web experience, with people entering the serial numbers of their bills, tracking where their money goes and posting messages to other members."
When he began the site as a weekend software-programming project, Eskin had no idea he would hit a nerve. But, as the site quickly built an audience, it struck him: Everybody handles money. You don't have to be rich to get your hands on $1 and $5 bills.
Clearly, there's a fascination with where the bills go and with the people who find them and respond over the Web, he says.
Eskin runs the site by himself, devoting 15 to 30 hours a week to the job. He also works as a database consultant to supplement his income from banner ads that appear on his Web site.
Like the Marshalls, Scott Salitsky is another Central Florida Georger infected with a new strain of the capitalist bug. Along with the urge to make money, he is obsessed with where it goes.
The Winter Park resident devotes at least 10 hours a week to following the money.
"I spend a sick amount of time on this," says Salitsky, 21, who recently graduated from the University of Central Florida.
"Friends think I'm crazy, but they'd say I was normal if they knew how much time others spend on Where's George? It's so addictive. It's its own world."
Where's George? members have their own slang, including "Georger" for a registered user and "naked George" for a bill that turns up, as did Marshall's, in an adult-entertainment emporium.
The tracking process isn't hard. Users type in their ZIP code and enter their bills' serial numbers in the site's database, then stamp the site's Web address on their bills. Users have stamps made at stationery and office-supply stores.
Days, weeks or sometimes years later, the stamped money is noted by an individual across town or across the country. That person goes online, types in the serial number, and an e-mail is sent to the bill's previous owner, saying where the money was found.
Stamping or marking bills may appear to be of dubious legality, but the law says defacing currency is illegal only if it leaves the currency unfit to be reissued.
Some 19 million bills have been marked and are still being spent in the United States, Canada and at American military bases worldwide -- the world of Where's George? aficionados.
The site has brought people together and also divided them, says Eskin, who provided these examples:
Colleen Spiegler, 31, of Pittsburgh is one of the most active Georgers, as tracked by a scoreboard listed on the site. She also leads the social standings, snagging her husband through Where's George?
"He saw an article about me in the paper," Spiegler says. "We had dated back in the '80s but then broke up. I got married and divorced and was single when the article came out."
Spiegler, who has entered more than 22,000 bills in Where's George?, has had hits from all 50 states -- meaning her bills have traveled all over the country. In contrast, she has visited just six states in person.
She goes to the bank and withdraws $100 in $1 bills, which she uses for various purchases. It can take her up to 45 minutes to type in the serial numbers on the Web.
It can take a lot longer -- up to two years -- to get a hit on a bill. "That's a sleeper," Spiegler says, lapsing into Georger jargon.
Of course, many people are shifting from cash to plastic now, whipping out debit cards and credit cards rather than the green stuff.
But greenbacks will always be with us, Eskin predicts, even if they're in larger denominations.
"Cash is ingrained in American society," he says. "The $1 bill might get phased out in the next five or 10 years, but there's plenty of time for us to make any needed adjustments on the site."
Like other Where's George? devotees, Spiegler has adapted to a world that is moving from paper currency to plastic credit and debit cards.
Spiegler has adapted her pecquiological habits to the cash/plastic world she inhabits. She sometimes pulls out a handful of $1 bills for purchases such as clothes and groceries, but she doesn't go above $60 because it takes the clerk too long to count the money -- and it holds up the line.
"One time I ran out of money and was going to use my debit card, but I couldn't remember the PIN number," she says.
Good thing her husband was there to pick up the tab -- and bring a little reality to the world of Where's George?
Copyright © 2002 Orlando
Where's George Terminology
By Chris Cobbs
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
June 17, 2002
Bicoastal bill: A bill that has been entered or hit on one coast and later gets hit on the opposite coast.
EMS: Enter, mark, spend. The correct process for using Where's George?.
Georgeaholic: A user hopelessly addicted to Where's George? to the point of obsession.
Naked George: A hit with a user note that suggests the bill's connection to the adult-entertainment industry.
Pecquiologist: A person who tracks money on the Internet.
Sleeper: A bill that takes a long time, generally more than 100 days, to get hit.
Water-cooler George: A marked bill spent within an office that receives a hit from another employee of that office.
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel.
Where do those dollars go?
For people who can't keep track of a buck, there's the Where's George? Web site at www.wheresgeorge.com -- a sort of underground Internet society that's open to anyone with a dollar to his name and a bit of daring in his soul.
No, the rascals at Where's George? won't help you balance a budget, but they will attempt to trace your folding money as it bounces around the St. Louis area or takes a road trip to the coast.
Hank Eskin, founder of the Web site, has developed an ingenious tracking system using the unique serial numbers found on every U.S. bill. To play, just enter a serial number into the database. If you're lucky, the bill may already have been entered by a "Georger" who has recorded when and where he or she found the bill and spent it. That's called a hit, and Georgers delight in hits; some users have entered thousands of bills into the database.
The Web site is free, fun and habit-forming and -- don't say we didn't warn you -- frowned upon by your friends in the federal government. That's because Georgers mark bills with the www.wheresgeorge.com URL to encourage participation. Some discreetly write the URL on a bill's margin with a friendly plea to "Please Track Me," while bolder Georgers custom-design their own stamps. Government agents don't care how you do it, they say marking on bills amounts to defacing U.S. currency - a federal offense that can bring a fine of up to $100 and up to six months in jail.
Nevertheless, Where's George? has evolved into a sophisticated Web site with more than 1.2 million registered users and just under 20 million bill entries. The site updates those numbers throughout the day, keeping track of statistics faster than McDonald's counts burgers sold.
Eskin of Brookline, Mass., an independent consultant who builds databases and must have time on his hands, started the Web site in 1998. He got the idea from a dollar bill on which someone had written, "Write this message on 10 other dollar bills, and good luck will come to you." The message sparked a thought - that bills could be traced by their serial numbers.
Eskin says the site's popularity is hard to explain.
"It's an Internet experience - highly interactive and participatory. It's free; I'm not marketing anything. I think it's a hobby for most people. People tell me it's addictive. They log on, enter bills and start getting hits."
The Georger mantra is EMS - Enter, Mark and Spend - and some mark and record every bill that passes through their fingers. Eskin, who is 37 and single, says Georgers are split about evenly between men and women. "The demographics are across the board - all kinds of people. There are no specific age groups or economic breakdown."
But, he acknowledges, male users tend to be more competitive, taking pleasure in making it into the top 10 lists for users and bills with most hits. Georgers are a friendly bunch who share tips in the site's chat room. Some arrange get-togethers where Georgers who are known by anonymous user names get to meet face-to-face.
"It's like a coffee club or book club, only it's for a Web site," says Eskin.
Eskin is aware of the government's charges that marking bills with the Where's George? URL is illegal. He says the practice does not make the bills unfit for circulation. The Frequently Asked Questions section of his Web site states: "Where's George? does not encourage the defacement of U.S. currency. The law defines 'illegal' defacement as defacement that renders bills unfit to be re-issued." Eskin did stop selling a Where's George? stamp, and he provides a link to the Web site of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing of the U.S. Treasury Department that discusses the defacement of currency.
"They're not happy about it - they're not thrilled about it," he acknowledges.
The bill with the most hits - 13 to date - passed through the St. Louis area last year. First entered in Dayton in July 2000, the one-dollar bill (called a George) wandered around Ohio before showing up at a QuikTrip in Wichita in February 2001. The bill made it to Marshfield, Mo., last August. On Christmas Day, a Georger from Florissant recorded it and then cast it back into the wild (spent it). The record-hit George was last seen in Crystal City in March.
The Georger from Florissant - we're withholding the scofflaw's name for his own protection because he's marked and entered more than 3,600 bills - ranks No. 8 among Georgers in Missouri and is aiming higher. The 37-year-old works in retail sales and admits to being a Georgeaholic. He says he spends at least 10 minutes daily entering bills, and he checks his standings first thing every morning. He's been playing since October 2000 when he first spotted a Georger's message.
"I had a bill come to me in some change at a store, and curiosity got to me," he says. "It's interesting to see how far the money goes. You never realize how far a dollar travels."
The trick for Georgers is to keep the bills circulating, so the strategy is to spend them in locations that offer quick turnarounds - convenience stores, for example. In effect, they play a strategic game of keep-away from banking institutions where bills can languish in a vault or, even worse, be retired.
According to the Federal Reserve, a one-dollar bill has a lifetime expectancy of only about 18 to 22 months before it becomes too worn and is pulled from circulation. If notes are defaced or mutilated, they are pulled sooner. And that's where the U.S. Secret Service comes in.
Through a quirk in bureaucracy, the same agency that guards the George who currently occupies the White House is also in charge of protecting U.S. currency from counterfeiting and from any other type of mutilation that would render it unfit for circulation. The Secret Service, an arm of the U.S. Treasury, is not amused by the messages that Georgers write or stamp on bills.
"We would discourage anyone from participating in such a scheme," says Jim Mackin, an agent assigned to public affairs in the Washington office of the Secret Service. He says violators who are caught are told to cease and desist - and usually do to avoid legal action.
Tom Canavit, assistant special agent of the St. Louis office, echoed Mackin's warning. Usually, he says, it's a matter of educating the public about the law.
For the record, Everyday staffers recently discovered two marked Georges - one was found in downtown St. Louis and the other in Richmond Heights. We cast the Georges back into the wild, but we can't tell you their complete serial numbers. Eskin monitors the Web site (we told you he has time on his hands) and would delete the bills to prevent unscrupulous Georgers from entering false hits.
And, besides, the Secret Service wouldn't like it.
Capital George: A bill that has been hit in a state or national capital.
Chicken George: A registered bill that's marked or stamped on the back only, usually because the initial user is afraid to pass bills that are marked on the front.
Educated George: A bill received and/or entered at a school.
Martha: A non-Georger.
Maiden George: The first not previously entered bill entered by a user.
Natural George: A bill that is entered in the Where's George? database but not marked. Also: Ghost George.
Sleeper: A bill that takes a long time, generally more than 100 days, to get a hit.
— Encyclopædia Georgetannica
Copyright © 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch.