In the final agony of fast-track Christmas shopping, I handed the checkout clerk a $100 bill. She gave it a suspicious look and called a manager. As I waited nervously to see if my cash passed muster, the manager scanned the bill with a professional eye, handed it back to the clerk with a nod and went about her business.

Meanwhile, several shoppers made their purchases in surrounding checkout lanes without a hitch, returned their plastic cards to their resting place among several others and headed for the parking lot with armloads of packages.It has finally happened. Plastic is better than cash or a check. I am not angry about the incident at the checkout counter. Besides, it is not the first time I have been mistaken for a shady character. Although I felt the spotlight bearing down as other shoppers stared at me suspiciously, it was not nearly as embarrassing as the last time I tried to pay for my merchandise with a personal check.

Even so, I understand the situation. Retailers probably have more protection when plastic cards are used to pay for purchases. They can make a quick call to determine if a credit card is good. Retailers lose millions of dollars annually on bad checks. As for cash, there is no way of knowing how many times bogus $100 bills are circulated before they are caught by trained eyes.

But the incident sent my mind flashing back to February 1986 and an interview with U.S. Treasurer Katherine Davalos Ortega - the woman whose name still appears on most of those bills in your wallet. She said then that the U.S. Treasury would print new currency that would be harder to counterfeit. Ortega said it would take 12 to 18 months to print the new bills and ship them to the banks to be put into circulation as old bills were retired.

That was almost five years ago, and if the new money has been printed, it is still sitting in storage somewhere waiting to be distributed. Meanwhile, the counterfeiters are having their way with us. For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, for example, $14 million in counterfeit money was found in circulation in the United States. Another $157 million was confiscated before it got into circulation, and an additional $157 million was seized abroad.

Nobody wants to talk about how many bogus U.S. dollars are circulating around the world and going undetected. When I had the chance to talk with Ortega, for example, she evaded that question, preferring to explain that it wasn't that much compared with how much real currency is out there.

The $100 bill is favored by those who print the bogus bills, because the C-note can net you $90 in real money - plus $10 worth of merchandise. There is a chance, of course, that some of the money you receive in change will also be counterfeit. Apparently there are many people who think they have just as much right as Alan Greenspan to create money.

Actually a counterfeit bill creates just as much of a ripple effect within the economy as real money - until it is detected and tossed out.

Now we are being told by the U.S. Treasury that engravers will have the new currency ready next year.

Whatever happened to the cashless society?