Stolen checks out-travel victim

The Baltimore Sun

LOS ANGELES -- I've never set foot in a PetSmart and haven't owned a critter since my family's beloved boxer, Archie, slobbered off this mortal coil sometime during the Nixon years.

So that $38.28 payment to the pet store jumped off the screen as I did my online banking a few Saturdays ago.

There, on the signature line of Check No. 3512's electronic image, was a big, flowery, cursive rendition of "Kim Christensen."

My name, but not my signature. Not only had my mark been forged, but judging from its feminine flourish, it was by someone who assumed, like untold others before, that Kim must be a girl.

I yelped (about the forgery thing, not the girl's-name thing, which I'm pretty used to by now): "Someone stole one of our checks!"

Then I spotted a check to a Huntington Beach, Calif., business I had never visited, and it hit me: Someone had stolen all of our checks -- 150 to be exact. PetSmart was only the first stop on a weeks-long tour of hot-check hell.

A couple weeks earlier, I had ordered checks and had no way of knowing that some lowlife got to them before we did.

The bank says it mailed them, so it appears that perhaps our letter carrier left the box on the front porch when it didn't fit through the slot in the door.

Like millions who pay bills online, I rarely write checks anymore, except for the yard guy and miscellaneous expenses.

In 1995, U.S. banks processed 50 billion checks. By 2003, the latest year tallied by the Federal Reserve, the number dipped to 37 billion. This year, look for a slight uptick, thanks to larcenous check-writers .

Banks lost $711 million to check fraud in 2005, according to the Fed's most recent study, but no one has good numbers on the billions more it costs consumers and merchants each year.

Fortunately, Wells Fargo & Co. answers phones on Saturdays and an agent froze our account so that no other checks could be cashed. That Monday, I went to the bank, opened a new account, signed an affidavit of forgery for the two cashed checks and got a full refund of $222.18.

I also asked major credit bureaus to place alerts on our files, so no new accounts could be opened .

Unfortunately, the thief kept writing checks, which soon were bouncing from La Canada Flintridge to San Clemente, Calif., with our names and address on them.

Report needed

Google "check forgery" and "police report" and you'll learn that if you're a victim of the former, you'll need the latter to prove your innocence.

Good luck.

A Long Beach police officer listened to my story, put me on hold, and then said he couldn't take a report. Because it involved the mail, the theft was a federal case, not a police matter.

"You'll need to report this to the U.S. Postal Inspector," he said.

Well, thanks, but I was determined to get my exculpatory police report, and nothing less would do.

At police headquarters the next morning, I was primed to demand a report be taken. But if I've learned anything in 30 years as a reporter, a good bit of it spent in police stations large and small, it's this: The squeaky wheel in the lobby almost never gets the grease. Arrested, maybe. Favorable treatment, not a chance.

I walked in ready to throw myself on the mercy of the public servant behind the glass, but I didn't have to.

He flipped through a fat paperback copy of the California Penal Code, reckoned that my complaint fit under "forgery" and sent out an officer to interview me.

"Thanks a bunch," I said afterward. "When can I get a copy of the report?"

"Usually in about three weeks," he said.

Three weeks? Are you kidding?

Only by the grace of a sympathetic supervisor in the records department was the wait time cut by about a week -- and none too soon.

Six checkbooks

Without leaving my home, I had written checks at a CVS pharmacy in Seal Beach ($63.21), a Wal-Mart in Long Beach ($193.41), a Sports Chalet in La Canada Flintridge ($200), a couple of Marshall's stores and a string of Vons, Ralph's and Albertsons in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Just knowing that someone has six of your checkbooks and a ginned-up ID to use them is enough to spark alternating currents of infuriation and helplessness.

The cops have lots bigger fish to fry, so it came as no surprise when I called the forgery section after a dozen checks had bounced and was told not to bother forwarding any new information because it would get a very low priority.

Since tracking down people is part of my job, I also tried the do-it-yourself route. But it's not easy to nab a crook when the only suspect's name you have to go on is your own.

On some, the forger listed our real phone number, which is in the book, but with no address. On others, he or she apparently made up numbers or picked them at random.

I'm still looking, but the odds are long. Not so for the aggrieved merchants and their collection agencies, which have had no trouble finding me. For a while, demand letters came in every day.

Most took a polite tack, such as one from Kroger Co., parent of Ralphs Grocery Co., which got stuck with two bad checks.

'Call me'

"We certainly understand that an occasional error does occur and we thank you in advance for correcting this matter promptly," it read, asking for $84, but, please, no personal checks.

Others were more strident, including a check-clearing company that wanted Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s $193.43 right now, plus a $25 fee.

For sheer creativity, though, kudos to the "collection affiliate" who left a recorded message on our answering machine.

"Hello, this is Ed Taylor," he said. "I'm calling you today to attempt to advise you that your status has changed. I need you to call me as soon as you receive this message, as this matter commands your immediate attention. ... This is not a sales call and we need to hear from you immediately."

Turns out Ed is with a company named ClearCheck and was calling me about the CVS forgeries.

A woman who answered the phone said Ed had just stepped into a meeting, but she insisted he really exists and transferred me to his voice mail to prove it. Sure sounded like Ed, but still no callback.

This much is true about ClearCheck and the other companies I've dealt with: They've all been very professional, and easy to get along with.

The key is to provide solid documentation: a brief cover letter, a police report, a notarized affidavit reflecting the account number and range of stolen checks, and a "To Whom It May Concern" letter from the bank, stating that the account was subjected to fraud.

I keep copies of everything, always follow up to make sure the bad-check recipients got my paperwork, and then call to request a letter saying they've scratched us from their most-wanted lists.

Still out there

So far, I've cleared our names on all 20 or so of the checks that have surfaced.

Another 130 of the little ticking time bombs are still out there, so chances are it's not over. Still, there's been a lull in the action, three weeks since the last dunning letter. Maybe the other Kim has given up and gone straight.

Or maybe I'm away on a really expensive vacation that nobody has told me about yet.

Kim Christensen writes for the Los Angeles Times.

What to do

Banks lost $711 million to check fraud in 2005, according to the latest study by the Federal Reserve, and estimated losses to consumers and businesses to be as high as $20 billion a year.

Here's what to do if you become a victim of forged check:

Immediately report the theft to your bank, close your account and open a new one.

Obtain a notarized affidavit of forgery from the bank showing the range of stolen check numbers.

File a police report and get a copy.

Place credit alerts on your files at major credit-reporting bureaus so that new accounts can't be opened without your knowledge.

Respond promptly to payment-demand letters from businesses and collection agencies with a brief cover letter and copies of documentation showing your checks were stolen.

Follow up with collection agencies to ensure that your name has been cleared from their bad-checks lists.

[Sources: Federal Reserve Bank, Nilson Report, Times research]

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