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Web site allows people to follow the money

By J. NEALY-BROWN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 26, 2001


If money seems to slip through your fingers, you may be able to find out who is getting a hold of it next.

A Web site created by a Boston man makes it possible for people to track their paper bills.

"It was just a kooky idea," said Hank Eskin, the 36-year-old self-employed Web development consultant who built the Where's George site. "I had really no idea how popular it would become."

The site has about 1,000 new users daily, according to Eskin, and more than 776,000 users altogether since it began in 1998.

Participants register their bills in the site's database according to year (1963 or later), serial number and denomination (up to $100). Users can also log in where they got the bill and what city they live in.

If future holders of the bill participate, there will be a city-by-city update on where and when it's spent.

Florida is one of the top-ranking states in the number of bills registered. One-dollar bills are most commonly tracked. But U.S. dollars aren't the only currency that can be tracked. Eskin also set up a site to follow the trail of Canadian money, whereswilly.com.

And others have followed his lead. They have created sites to track currency issued by Germany (www.woistmeingeld.de), the United Kingdom (www.doshtracker.co.uk), the Netherlands (www.wheresthemoney.nl) and Japan (www.osatsu.net).

Eskin, who built the initial site in 1998, got the idea on his way to lunch one day. He noticed that one of his dollar bills had a handwritten note asking the holder to write the message onto 10 other bills.

"It reminded me of the chain letters you get in the mail, but you don't know where they come from," he said. "Except on a dollar bill, it had a serial number."

Certain that somebody else already had thought of the idea, he searched the Web but didn't find a tracking site. So he built his own.

He also sold rubber stamps to ink his message on the bills:

SEE WHERE I'VE BEEN

TRACK WHERE I GO NEXT

www.wheresgeorge.com

* * *

Eskin thought he was on solid legal ground because it's not a crime to write on money as long as the bill can still be used. Eskin later learned that it is against federal law to advertise on bills or coins, so he stopped selling the stamps.

But bill-tracking enthusiasts haven't stopped spreading the word. Some had their own stamps made, or they just write the message and Web address on the bill.

Eskin also sells bumper stickers, license plate frames, soap and information cards promoting his creation and uses the money to maintain the site. Eskin says he makes no profit and never intended to.

Personally, Eskin has tracked only a few bills. Most of the time he is chatting with users online or maintaining the site.

But he has created an avid bunch of users, who collect trivia about where their bills have been. A Minnesota man, for example, has been tracking money since 1999, as it circulated in 46 states, Washington, D.C., Japan and Turkey.

In North Palm Beach, retiree Rick Taylor was amazed that the $1 he passed at his local Moose lodge ended up in a bar in San Jose, Calif., four days later. That bill had a stamp urging others to log in its journey.

"One of these days I'm going to say to hell with it" and stop keeping track of his money that way, Taylor said. But not until he ranks in the top 1,000 for the most hits of a bill that he's entered. This week, he's ranked No. 1,354 and has watched his money go through 16 states.

"People say I've got entirely too much time on my hands," said Taylor, 70. But, "Well, it's kind of fun."

- J. Nealy-Brown can be reached at nealy@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8846.

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