Originally created 05/11/04

Increase in fraud alarms officers



AIKEN - Financial fraud, once the province of the professional check-kiter, fly-by-night counterfeiter and quick-change artist, has grown to "overwhelming" levels in recent years, so much so that investigators have a hard time keeping up with it, local authorities say.

In North Augusta, fraud reports have quadrupled in the past year, according to North Augusta Public Safety Investigator David Smith.

"The amount of fraud and ID theft right now is just alarming," Investigator Smith said.

At the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, financial crimes investigator Viktoria Bargmann has seen frauds and forgeries increase by 67 percent in the past year.

"We've gotten to the point where every (investigator) up here has to do fraud, because we can't keep up with the volume," she said.

In an attempt to stem the flow of cases, local authorities are holding informational sessions with merchants, hoping the seminars will prompt more vigilance on their behalf.

"Most of the clues are right there in front of them," Investigator Bargmann says. "It just takes somebody to look at it - nobody looks at it."

Last year, a check-dumping scheme resulted in 80 bogus payroll checks totaling $40,000 being cashed at various North Augusta locations within a two-hour span.

The checks, counterfeited from an Edgefield plant nursery using easily available check stock paper, computer scanners and laser printers, clearly stated on the "border warning" around the edges that the checks should have certain markings printed with heat-sensitive ink, which they didn't.

"Nobody ever looked at it," Investigator Bargmann said.

Advances in technology and increasing fraud know-how have contributed to the rapid increase in financial crimes, but it's the unwitting merchants who take in forged checks that enable the system to work, authorities say.

Many are clerks working minimum wage, who won't check a driver's license against a personal check - as long as there's a license number on the check, Investigator Bargmann said. Some run fraudulent checks through an electronic check-scan confirmation machine, then override the system to cash the check when it's rejected.

"A lot of these clerks have no incentive to look out for these, and no accountability," she said. "People need to make their employees accountable for what's going on."

Financial crimes have grown so much that some large metropolitan law enforcement agencies no longer have the time or resources to track down every check forger, leaving the problem for merchants to solve on their own, Investigator Bargmann said.

"We're rapidly getting to the point where we can't investigate them all anymore," she said.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

How to protect your business from being had by check forgery and fraud:

  • Check the "warning border" around the edge of payroll checks. It should indicate whether the check has watermarks or heat-sensitive ink. Look for those safeguards.

  • Use electronic check verification systems; don't override them.

  • Check picture IDs of people presenting checks - verify that spelling of name, license number and address corresponds between ID and check.

  • Put in place firm policies on what checks are and aren't accepted; stick to the policies.

  • Hold employees accountable for forged checks that are accepted; provide incentives for employees to spot frauds.

  • Reserve the right to decline any check.Source: Aiken County Sheriff's Office, North Augusta Department of Public Safety, Aiken County Solicitor's Office
  • Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or stephen.gurr@augustachronicle.com.