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Expert Offers More on Bad-Paper Chase

February 28, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

There are consumer subjects of interest, and then there are consumer subjects of interest.

And with our recent discussion of just what all those supermarket managers are looking for when they examine and approve personal checks, we seem to have hit a nerve with a lot of readers who had been pondering the same thing: Do they really know what they're supposed to be looking for?

Alas, according to our source, bad-paper expert Robert Cekosky, the majority of those harassed store managers might just as well be poring over an Italian birth certificate as a check written on a local bank. With distressing regularity, they routinely OK promotional discount coupons printed to resemble checks, counter checks (which can often be picked up in a bank by anyone strolling in) and checks that have been "kited" so amateurishly that no 4-year-old would dare turn them in to his kindergarten teacher. The annual cost: about $4 billion, which we all end up paying.

Cekosky, drawing on a background in the collection business, became fascinated with the entire field of bad paper (checks, travelers' checks, drafts, credit cards, et al.)--the source of so much of his business. He spent four years researching his book, "Check and Credit Card Fraud Prevention Manual" (available from the author, $65, P. O. Box 26118, Los Angeles 90026).

The earlier discussion here stressed a number of points that Cekosky believes those store managers should be looking for when they examine a check.

For instance: A high percentage of bum checks don't have a pre-printed number (not to mention the individual's name and address) or have a low number, indicating a new account--one that may have been recently opened by a flake with a proclivity for writing bad checks who has bounced from bank to bank.

Number of Questions

Readers found all of this fascinating, and it flushed forth an equally fascinating number of "Yes, but . . . " questions.

P.A. of Hollywood, for instance, wonders why store managers insist on demanding and noting on the back of the check the customer's home telephone number. "If I wanted to cheat, I wouldn't put my number down and wait by the phone to be caught. Let me know if there's a reason for this silly request."

Well, there really isn't, Cekosky concedes. It's a bit of information that's about as useful as noting on the back of the check that its writer has brown eyes. The only halfway valid reason for the practice, he notes, is psychological. The passer of a phony check is quite aware of what he is doing, and he is apprehensive about being caught. Being asked to invent a bogus phone number doesn't sound like much of a nerve jangler. But if he's new to the game, he might panic.

And S.P. of Pomona raises an interesting point in this matter of being suspicious of low-numbered checks: "Except for the first batch of 25 checks that the banks give as a starter kit, the choice of what to number the checks depends on the customer. Therefore, there is really no logic to refusing to accept checks numbered less than 200." (One hotel chain, cited in the earlier article, instituted a policy of not accepting checks numbered below 200 and thereby cut its bad-check losses dramatically.)

Here again Cekosky concedes a valid point since, sure enough, when ordering your first batch of checks you can specify that the numbering begin at 201, 501, 801 or whatever. In some parts of the country, he adds, banks have started imprinting all checks (above the customer's name and address) with a number indicating when the account was opened. Thus, the figure 82284, would be a dead giveaway that the account was opened last Aug. 22 regardless of the pre-printed number on the check. Unfortunately, the practice is still rare in California.

"There's no really foolproof way to protect yourself against checks that have been pre-numbered artificially," Cekosky concedes, "but a valid point to keep in mind is that your average crook doesn't stay very long in one place. So, you can get a slight handle on this sort of thing by comparing the address on the check against the address on his driver's license. If they're different, and he's renewed his license a year or two ago, then it means he's moved in the meantime."

In other words, if the check is No. 625 and the address on it is different from his year-old license renewal, there's cause for suspicion. The reason is that the average individual writes about 200 checks a year, and that check numbered 625 would suggest that he's been at the same address for roughly three years--when, clearly, he hasn't.

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