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Detective says passing bad checks is still the crime of choice

March 25, 2002|BY MARLO BARNHART

While a lot of attention has been paid recently to high-tech crimes such as identity theft, one Hagerstown City Police officer said the old-fashioned method of passing bad checks is still the crime of choice.

It is apparently quite easy to fleece banks and stores who aren't strict about requiring identification or verification that a check is good before they cash it, Detective George Brandt said.

"There is no law that says a store or a bank has to accept a check, any check," Brandt said. But they do it repeatedly, only to find a few days later that the checks were bogus and they are left with the loss.

For example, a local bank recently opened an account for a person from out of town who filled out all the paperwork and deposited $50 in the account, Brandt said.

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On the same day, several checks in excess of $1,400 were cashed at different branches of the bank on that account and the person was gone, Brandt said. Obviously the information about the first bad check didn't become available until all the others were cashed.

"Some banks are strict about seeing IDs, while others aren't," Brandt said. And if the bank has any doubts about a check, it has the right to hold it for two to three days before cashing it so the check can be verified.

But Brandt said that rarely happens, even with personal checks.

"Banks need to be more cautious about out-of-town checks ... not all people are honest, after all," he said.

Stores are also often targets of bad checks, Brandt said. Fearing that they will lose a sale, many will take personal checks that later turn out to be no good.

"I've had cases where the check actually had an erasure on it and the store still cashed it," Brandt said.

Brandt encourages store personnel to always ask for proper identification, saying it is just good business.

"Other stores have computers that will instantly show if the person has passed a bad check before and then they can refuse to take another check," Brandt said.

Another popular ploy involves law-abiding people cashing checks for strangers who ask for a favor.

"Sometimes people will drive up to someone and say 'please cash my check, I don't have any identification,'" Brandt said, urging citizens to say "no." "If they are driving a car, doesn't that mean they should have a driver's license?"

The new high-tech crime on the rise is identity theft and anyone with a credit card or a checking account is vulnerable, Brandt said.

He said he has gotten calls from people whose credit cards have been used three states away.

"First I advise people to be very careful with all credit card receipts. They should be shredded or burned but never thrown away," Brandt said.

In Maryland, identity theft is on the rise. Currently the crime is only a misdemeanor punishable with a year in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.

Two bills are before committees in the Maryland General Assembly this year to change the penalties to a felony with a possible 15-year prison term.

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