Sunday, April 11, 2010

How NOT to forge a check

Want a demonstration of the limits of of Google and the Internet?

Type "how to forge a check" into a search bar. Try "counterfeiting a check." Try "making a fake check." Go ahead, look at page 10 of the search results, we'll wait.

It's nigh impossible to find a single useful link more recent than the 1990s.

"That's good. That's the way we like it," said Detective Mike Korcek.

That's one way to look at it. Another is that maybe it simply isn't that hard to do. Advances in home computer equipment like scanners and laserjet printers lower the cost of entry to a life of check-forging crime. Given the choice between trying to replicate the paper of U.S. currency (a federal crime in itself) and walking into Office Max to purchase a box of decorative paper that looks vaguely check-like, it's easy to understand why criminals are choosing the latter, but even Korcek was surprised at the size of the ring he and a group of law enforcement officers busted up in the waning hours of 2009.

On New Year's Eve at a Motel 6 on Hawthorne Avenue, Korcek and group of Salem police officers arrested a woman charged with heading up a local check forgery ring. Michelle Blythe, 30, and Leo Thompson, 35, were arrested in the midst of manufacturing bogus checks and charged with forgery, attempted theft and criminal possession of a forgery device. They were the last to be cuffed in a series of 13 arrests.

The ring was responsible for at least $119,000 in cashed bogus checks, but it might have been as much as $200,000.

"We're still sorting through all the paperwork, but we have heard that the counterfeit checks have stopped appearing so the arrests seem to have made a difference," Korcek said.

The sum might seem like a lot, but given the number of individuals involved in the ring, it probably didn't amount to much per person, said Cpl. Mark Seyfried, of the Salem Police Department.

"These weren't people rolling around in stacks of $100 bills. These were people looking for the the best hotel room and the best high they could get for the night," Seyfried said.

The ringleader, Blythe, was someone that police had run across before. She was arrested in March 2006 for crimes related to counterfeiting checks and sentenced to 26 months in prison three months later.

"The difference - this time - was that she'd learned from some of her mistakes and she'd removed herself from the front lines of the operation," said Korcek.

The ring included check manufacturers, individuals recruiting check passers, drivers and the check passers themselves. Members targeted mostly Wal-Marts and a few other check cashing establishments throughout Salem, Dallas, Lebanon and Woodburn.

"Generally, they target larger businesses who consider the potential of cashing a bad check a business risk," said Det. Kris Wickman, of the Salem Police Department. "The businesses figure if they cash a check at least a portion of it will be spent in the store."

While that might make a place like Wal-Mart seem like an easy mark, it's far from the truth, Korcek said.

"Larger retailers are the ones with video cameras in the parking lots, so when they called us out to investigate a bad check we had video footage of the drivers and the check passers from the time they entered the parking lot," he said.

The passers would generally try to cash checks made to appear as though they were issued by state or federal agencies, but only successfully cashed a check once out of every four attempts.

"It's definitely a trial and error endeavor," said Korcek. "When we arrested Blythe on New Year's Eve she had stacks of checks they knew wouldn't clear, but you could see them getting closer."

While the number of people involved in the ring was unusual for Salem, the brazenness of those involved was another unique aspect of the case.

"We had a number of people passing checks using their own identities to do it and volunteering real checks that they had received to pull routing numbers," said Det. Treven Upkes, of the Salem Police Department.

It was evidence of desperateness with which most of them approached their participation in the crime, said Korcek.

"These generally aren't people living the high life. It didn't end in a high-speed chase, it ended at a Motel 6 with two people living out of a suitcase," Upkes said.

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