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Check please, thieves say

YOUR MONEY

Two low-tech scams can do high damage to your bank account, but there are ways to fight back.

May 06, 2007|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

TALK about money laundering.

An ordinary check made out to person A is bathed in a chemical available at any hardware store. In just a few minutes it's blank again and made out to person B -- who is a thief.

This process, which has been around for decades, is known as "check washing" among con men, and in an era of high-tech crimes, it seems almost quaint.

Except that it's back. Along with other check crimes.

"What we are hearing is that it's a backlash after so much effort made by banks to boost security on their websites," said Will Wade, technology editor for trade journal American Banker. "Some of the scammers are going old school with the easier stuff."

U.S. banks lost $711 million because of check fraud in 2005, the most recent year the Federal Reserve studied the matter. But that's only a drop in the bucket.

Losses to individuals and business owners -- many of whom will never realize they've been scammed -- probably push that figure far higher.

It's familiar territory for reformed fraudster Frank Abagnale Jr., whose scams -- some involving misdeeds with checks -- were so infamous that Steven Spielberg made a film about him, "Catch Me If You Can."

"These people today are doing the same thing I was doing 40 years ago," said Abagnale, now a security consultant and author.

But not all the schemes are stuck in the past. A new fake-check fraud, which often makes use of digital printers and the Internet, has proved to be particularly potent.

The nonprofit National Consumers League, founded in 1899, last year received more complaints about fake checks than any other scam, except those involving online auctions and purchases.

Here's a guide to the workings of two of the more prominent check scams -- one retro and the other recent -- and what to do if you're a victim:

Check washing

This was one of the hallmarks of Abagnale's former career, and it's still very much alive.

It involves "washing" off the payee and amount written on a check and then substituting fraudulent information.

In most cases, the scammer first obtains a legitimate check through a variety of means. It can be one that was placed in a home mailbox as outgoing mail or one used to innocently pay for services.

"Someone comes to the door and offers to clean up the yard for $40," Abagnale said.

It sounds like a good deal. Many people won't have the cash in the house and pay by check.

"If it's a scam, the person doing the yardwork doesn't really care about the $40," Abagnale said. "He wants the check."

Especially if that check is made out in ordinary ballpoint pen. The scammer uses an over-the-counter solvent to get rid of the writing on it.

In a test at The Times -- following directions supplied by a local security expert -- the writing in the "Pay to the Order," "Dollars" and signature areas on a check was dissolved in less than 15 minutes. Printed information -- including the bank routing numbers and the name and address of the account holder -- remained intact.

Half an hour later, the test check was dry enough for new information to be filled in. It was a bit crumpled, as if it had gotten wet from rain or sat in someone's pocket. But it looked disturbingly good.

One defense against this type of fraud is the use of a "secure" pen -- such as the Uni-ball 207 -- that dispenses ink impervious to many solvents. It's cheap protection. The pen costs about $2.

If the scam is successfully carried out and the amount on a washed check is deducted from an account, chances are good that the victim can get the money refunded.

"This would be considered an unauthorized check," said Gail Hillebrand, an attorney with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. Unless the scammer is found and made to pay up, the bank would suffer the loss.

But there are loopholes, mostly having to do with time.

Under the Uniform Commercial Code, a financial institution can set a deadline for complaints about a check charge. Generally, the standard is 30 days after a monthly statement is received.

After that, the account holder could be out of luck.

And there is no set time that the bank has to pay the money back.

"They have to pay, but you have to make them do it," Hillebrand said.

Charles Bruce, executive director of the National Check Fraud Center, advised polite but persistent inquiries.

"If it takes longer than 10 days," Bruce said, "I'd go knock on the bank manager's door."

Bonus checks

In this relatively new scam, the victim is contacted to say that for some reason, a check is on the way.

"Often, it's that they have somehow won a sweepstakes," said Susan Grant, director of the National Consumers League's fraud center.

Contact can be made with potential victims by mail or phone. But e-mail has vastly increased the reach of these scammers.

The fraud can start with the check payment for an item bought online. Or it can be born of a virtual affair.

"It can be part of a 'sweetheart swindle,' " Grant said, "with a check coming from a woman who has established a relationship with someone online."

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