Shopping season also prime time for check fraud

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Today kicks off the busiest shopping season of the year, as just about everybody knows, but it also kicks off the season to get hoodwinked -- especially if you're an area merchant.
   And computer savvy crooks are already hard at work, generating payroll checks which appear to be from legitimate local businesses but actually are the handiwork of someone with access to a laser printer.
   Capt. Mike Peters of Elizabethton Police Department's Criminal Investigation Division said Tuesday that the checks presented so far at three area businesses have been used in conjunction with a Kentucky driver's license.
   "I think we've had three of them show up at Wal-Mart and a couple of grocery stores. They've just been printed out on a computer. They look good, but everything on them is bogus. The account number is bogus, the identity is bogus," Capt. Peters said.
   Sometimes the checks list a local business name but an incorrect address or phone number.
   "They can call the bank and a lot of times they can just look up the number in the phone book," he said.
   A check recovered Tuesday, which was cashed at Sav-A-Lot, falsely appeared to have been generated by Housecall Home Health Care. That check did list the correct address.
   "We want to alert the merchants because at this time of year, everybody's going to get hit hard with checks anyway," Peters said.
   "These checks look good; but do everything you can to verify it. If it's business hours, call the bank or the business. If not, check it through the phone book.
   "Particularly with the holiday season coming up, it's probably going to get worse. Grocery stores and large department stores seem to be their favorite targets. This one that we got today is $367.42, so it's almost like a week's or two weeks' pay," Peters said. "A lot of them are under $500 to make it look like a weekly payroll check or a two week payroll check."
   Capt. Peters said that most of the time, the person cashing the check will attempt the transaction after regular business hours so that the cashier cannot verify it through the bank or business.
   "If they've gone in with a $300 check and bought $60 or $70 worth of groceries, I'm sure they want to make that sale," he said. However, to protect themselves, businesses might consider cashing payroll checks during business hours only.
   "It might be a hardship on some people, but unless they know the person, or they're regular customers, I would do all that I could to verify it," Capt. Peters said.