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Check scams tough to prosecute

by: JEFF MCDONALD  - Pam Freeman, owner of La Caseta de Woodburn, verifies a customers documents at her check cashing business last week. Technological advances and high standards for prosecution have given those who commit check fraud the upper hand locally, business owners and law enforcement officials say.

That is why some local money servicing businesses say taking prevention against check fraud and other related crimes is the best and only way to prevent loss.

New technology makes it possible to create hundreds of fake checks with real account numbers and fake names, using nothing but a computer and color printer, said Scott Russell, chief of the Woodburn Police Department.

“Check fraud of all kinds continues to be a major driver for crime,” Russell said. “Cheap computer systems are the driver of that. You can import a photo and put whatever you want on there.”

Businesses dealing with checks, including groceries, banks and check cashing companies, are always at risk for fraud. Criminal elements can blanket an area with hundreds of bad checks before anyone catches on to them, Russell said.

“If (businesses) don’t have a system in place to notify them immediately, they’re not going to know until that check goes into their bank,” Russell said. “We’re left picking up the pieces.”

Woodburn retailer Casa Mexico has lost an estimated $250,000 in check fraud since opening 23 years ago, said owner Michael Elias. The Mexican clothing store, which cashes $1.8 million monthly in checks during the peak summer months, has taken precautions to avoid check fraud but lost $6,900 last year alone, Elias said.

“We have a system that has been running for years,” he said. “Customers get logged into the system. The cashier will have to search to see if he’s cashed a check.”

Elias meets monthly with the FBI, DMV, Walmart and bank officials to discuss security measures, he said.

“We learn from them,” he said. “We have a good standing with them. For the amount of money we take, we have among the best records.”

But there is no such thing as 100 percent safe, Elias said.

In some cases where the customer is already checked into the system, it is nearly impossible to prevent fraud, he said.

“Now and then we get somebody who’s bold and you have to eat it,” he said. “You have a reliable customer for several years and let’s say he loses his job or he wants to go back to Mexico. Or he gets a big check and tells his company he lost the check, so they issue him another one. He cashes the bad check with us. There is no way to prevent that.”

For all his losses, however, Elias sometimes does not even bother to call the police, he said.

“They don’t follow up on things,” he said. “It’s frustrating to the point where it doesn’t pay to do business in Woodburn.”

Several criteria must be met for the Marion County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute individuals who pass bad checks, Russell said.

“They want to know that you have done everything you could to verify this person,” Russell said. “If (businesses) don’t, they’re probably not going to prosecute the case.

Among the criteria are the following:

u Check must have been written in the presence of the person accepting it;

u There must be two sources of ID documented on the check, including an Oregon driver’s license number, vehicle license number or credit card account numbers;

u The check must be for $50 or more;

u Additionally, before a case can be submitted to the court, the police must have two of the following: a positive identification of the suspect, an admission in writing by the suspect, a handwriting sample analyzed by an expert confirming that the suspect wrote the check or the suspect’s fingerprint on the check.

There are some cases, particularly with smaller businesses, where all the verification requirements are not met, Russell said.

“I know we have a number of businesses that are not thrilled with the DA’s criteria,” he said.

No representatives from the district attorney’s office returned calls for comment on the criteria.

Most businesses are left to fend for themselves.

At the downtown check cashing business, La Caseta de Woodburn, security measures typically prevent attempted criminals from using forged checks or bad checks.

“Most of them don’t even know what I’m doing,” said Pam Freeman, owner, as she snaps a picture of each person who makes a transaction at her store. “Once we have confirmed the transaction, I give him his money, minus the 1 percent.”

The software allows La Caseta to cross-reference every check to see if it has been cashed before.

Freeman had owned a string of check cashing stores in California, but decided to move to Oregon because she was getting robbed too much, she said.

“It’s a different kind of crime here,” she said. “We haven’t been robbed, but we have had bad checks.”

La Caseta played a key role in helping Marion County Sheriff’s Office pinpoint the thieves who had robbed checks, vehicles and other items from two county offices in Woodburn last month.

A pair of the alleged check thieves — Danil Kisilev and Nico Reyes — cashed $3,000 in checks that they had allegedly stolen, Freeman said. They were able to get the money because they used their real IDs, Freeman said.

“That’s how police got them because we had their photo ID,” she said.

Regardless of catching four of the alleged thieves — Kisilev remains at large — Freeman does not expect to get her money back, she said.

Freeman’s security system requires every individual who cashes a check to already have an account with La Caseta. In order to cash a check, the person must have two forms of ID.

“We’ve had forged checks and stolen checks,” said David Sato, manager of La Caseta. “We’re just extremely cautious. We’re not afraid to turn people away.”

Another area that check cashing businesses are aware of is the high likelihood that someone is carrying a fake ID, Freeman said.

“It used to be awful, but it’s somewhat under control now,” she said. “Fake IDs are still very easy to get.”

With a high immigrant population, Woodburn has a reputation of being the hub of fake IDs for both Marion and surrounding counties, said Sgt. Jason Millican of the Woodburn Police Department.

While WPD has cracked down on the open market for IDs that used to exist around downtown Woodburn, they generally cost about $40, Millican said.

“Most are for employment purposes,” he said. “People come here to work and they need an ID to work.”

With limited budgets and cases that are unlikely to be prosecuted, it is really up to the businesses to verify an ID and have the systems in place to stop the crime from happening, Millican said.

“As far as frauds go, they’re not going to touch it, and the bad guys know it,” Millican said. “Unless a crime has a high dollar amount and/or multiple victims, it is hard to gain the attention of the DA’s office. It is not a crime they are likely to prosecute.”



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