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Check forgery a growing problem in Twin Ports

A rising incidence in check forgery in the Twin Ports has prompted area police departments to get creative in their efforts to fight back. A new e-mail network is being developed to send out names of people writing bad checks. Area merchants from...

A rising incidence in check forgery in the Twin Ports has prompted area police departments to get creative in their efforts to fight back. A new e-mail network is being developed to send out names of people writing bad checks. Area merchants from Duluth, Superior, Hermantown and Proctor can be a part of the network and get immediate notification when police discover a check scam.
"We do it now by word of mouth," Superior police detective Herb Bergson said. "An e-mail network would make it instantaneous. We will touch hundreds of businesses right now with the name of John Doe. 'Don't take any checks from John Doe.' You shut him down immediately."
Bergson works closely with Duluth police in check scams because those people writing bad checks do so in both communities. "When people are cashing checks in Superior, they're usually cashing the same checks in Duluth," Bergson said. "If there are bad checks and we're getting hit with maybe two, three, four checks, it usually means there are five, 10, 15 times that out there."
The latest twist in check scams in Duluth and Superior is perpetrators stealing boxes of new checks out of mailboxes when people reorder their checks. The new checks are not reported stolen right away, because the owner doesn't realize they've been delivered. In the meantime, a person can write several bad checks, and, unless the clerk checks for identification, can purchase thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Oftentimes the items are returned for a cash refund, and the money is spent on drugs or gambling.
"It's incredible how many checks can be distributed in a couple of days before anyone knows that the checks are out there and that they're bad," Bergson said. "That's why that alert system is so important. If once we know there's one out there, we issue an alert, and we're able to catch the person maybe on a video tape cashing one of those checks."
It is generally recommended that if you order checks by mail to know what day they are expected to be delivered, and make arrangements with the postal carrier. Better yet, have them delivered to the bank and go pick them up there.
Checks are also being stolen from inside homes, by people the victims know, friends and sometimes even family members. Blank checks are disappearing from dresser drawers. Personal checks are being stolen, and new names are being written on the "pay to the order of ..." line. Those are the easy cases, Bergson says. "When you steal a check and write it out to yourself, it's not the brightest thing in the world," he said.
Bergson and Duluth police detective Jim Rose are working together on several cases where checks have been stolen, either out of a mailbox or out of a drawer inside the house. In one instance, $30,000 to $40,000 worth of checks have been forged. "And that's just checks we found," Bergson said. "Dozens of checks are still missing. There are a lot of forgeries out there."
On average, police solve 70 to 80 percent of all forgery cases. Bergson says it's because these people usually get greedy. "It's repeaters," he said. "It's people who can't stop at just one check. They're writing three or four or five. If they had just used one we may not have caught 'em, but they used five, and when they repeat the 'm-o' over a period of time, you're able to tie similarities together. It's easy police work when they're stupid. And five is stupid."
Area businesses are invited to a forum at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College Wednesday, June 20, to learn about the rise in check fraud, how to avoid being a victim and to learn more about the new e-mail network.

Jennifer Simonson is a news reporter for the Budgeteer News. Reach her at 723-1207 or at jsimonson@duluth.com .

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