Originally created 05/07/99

Area officials seek fraud suspects



Richmond County investigators need the public's help in identifying eight people suspected in a check fraud ring that has bilked Augusta businesses out of more than $10,000.

Using high-tech computer programs, the eight people -- four men and four women -- have printed counterfeit birth certificates with fake names and dates of birth and used the phoney documents to get state-issued identification cards, said Investigator Jimmy Vowell.

The group also has printed checks using the VersaCheck computer program, which can be purchased at CompUSA for as little as $10, and is designed to let average consumers and small business owners print their own checks at home.

The group prints the checks with big-company names and then tries to pass them off as paychecks at local supermarkets and convenience stores, cashing them using the identification card, Investigator Vowell said. An individual will use, for example, a $300 check to pay for $10 in items, and then get back the remainder of the check in cash.

Store clerks, especially young high school students working as cashiers after school, aren't suspicious when they see a well-respected company's name on the check.

"Some of the companies used have been Sizemore Personnel and University Hospital, and the store clerks aren't checking the validity of the checks," Investigator Vowell said.

The National Check Fraud Center in Charleston, S.C., reports that fraud and counterfeiting is one of the fastest-growing problems among retailers, who lose an estimated $10 billion a year.

On several occasions, though, the con artists have been required to give a thumbprint when cashing the check, but investigators have not been able to match the fingerprint with anyone.

Since the biographical information these people have used in the birth certificates and checks is fictitious, investigators are putting out their pictures, hoping someone may recognize one of them.

Anyone who has information or recognizes any of the people should call the Richmond County Sheriff's Department during the week from 8 to 5 p.m. at (706) 821-1020. After hours or on weekends, call (706) 821-1080.

Meghan Gourley covers crime for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3227 or mgourley@augustachronicle.com.