Baltimore County fraud investigator Debby Chenoweth new the pattern: a rash of stolen driver’s licenses, student IDs, and birth certificates; then a wave of bad checks bearing the names of unwitting victims whose identities had been used; eventually, businesses swindled by counterfeit checks.
The signs pointed to one suspect whom Chenoweth had chased for nearly a decade. The Baltimore Sun says Chenoweth saw the man as the brains behind a large counterfeiting operation and as a case study in a serious national problem. Check forgery costs businesses tens of millions of dollars a year. Banks reported more than 10,000 counterfeit check cases across the country last year.
Maryland athorities say the state has been hit by some million-dollar check counterfeiting cases. One prosecutor calls the amount of money lost to these schemes “breathtaking.” Apart from the lost money, counterfeit checks devastate victims whose IDs are stolen from purses and wallets in schools, churches, parked cars ,and businesses.
The crime is easy, low-risk, and it usually pays off big. For $29.99, anyone can buy a basic kit from the local office supply store that includes a software program and blank check stock to produce 100 authentic-looking checks on a computer. With $200 to $300 in magnetic ink cartridges, a counterfeiter can fool electronic check readers. Chenoweth says check counterfeiting rarely results in long sentences. “That’s the frustrating part.” she says. “There’s no rehabilitation for this type of crime. There’s no incentive for them to stop.”
A California man was convicted last year of stealing checks made payable to David Letterman, Tom Cruise and others. He counterfeited them, netting $162,000 in 10 days. At the other extreme are major rings such as Operation Paper Caper, a 1996 scheme run by Vietnamese nationals who attempted to steal $35 million through counterfeit checks and other fraud schemes in 22 states before being caught in a sting. Thirty-six were imprisoned for as long as three years.