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Check fraud goes undetected

Darrin McCullough began having check fraud problems after the theft of his car containing his checkbook.
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On Nov. 7, Darrin McCullough’s 1977 Chevy Nova was stolen from his workplace at Whispering Pines Business Park in Grass Valley and taken for a joy ride.

“I’m an old-fashioned boy. I left the keys in it … under the seat. I’m not saying I was smart,” the 35-year-old Nevada City man said.



The good news is, he recovered the car the next day, with only a broken dome light, after a friend spotted it off Gold Flat Road.




The bad news is, his checkbook was taken for a much longer ride.

His checks, nine in all, were written all over town. The higher amounts included $168 at Kmart, $160 at Raley’s and $158 at J.C. Penney. Another, written for $137, was passed at a Rite Aid Pharmacy in Auburn.

More than two months later, he’s still sending out affidavits to clear his name through the business’ check-scam services. He figures he lost $1,400, including phone calls, the cost of towing his car, and the theft of jewelry and a cell phone that were also in the vehicle.

“I’ve been on the phone eons,” he said. “Time, effort, stress, money – it’s just been a pain in the butt.”

It’s also a common story, say law enforcement officials, and most cases of check fraud and forgery of stolen checks could be prevented if merchants began asking customers for identification.

“I think merchants, in their defense, don’t want to offend people by asking for ID,” Grass Valley Police Capt. Greg Hart said. “Some people might be offended – ‘Jeez, don’t I look like an honest person. What is it about me you don’t trust?'”

The Nevada City Chamber of Commerce sends check-fraud prevention kits to business owners. But at its own office, where gifts are sold, check writers get by easily, executive director Cathy Whittlesey said.

“We just probably aren’t really good about it,” she said. “If people look like we should worry about it, we probably do (check ID), but most people look like good people.”

Check forgery in Nevada County, said Vince Pedigo, manager of Rite Aid in Grass Valley, is less prevalent than at stores he’s worked for in Carmichael and Roseville.

His store usually asks for IDs for checks over $50. Other red flags are out-of-town checks and checks with low numbers and dual names.

“You’d be surprised how many IDs don’t match their addresses on their checks,” he said.

Rite Aid, like many businesses, subscribes to a check-recovery system – which McCullough calls a disincentive for checking IDs.

“These merchants don’t even know how many stolen checks they have because some other company deals with it,” said McCullough, who works for Maier Manufacturing, which makes plastic motorcycle parts.

McCullough also accused Grass Valley police of not aggressively pursuing the case and said he’s provided leads. In response, Hart said the case remains under investigation and thus can’t be discussed

Check forgery is a constant, and gradually increasing, problem, said Deputy District Attorney Jim Phillips.

In 2000, the District Attorney’s Office pursued nearly 80 check-forgery cases. In many of those, whole boxes of checks were stolen from mailboxes, often by people with drug problems, Phillips said.

Unsolicited checks, mailed by credit card companies to lure customers, are another problem. Victims don’t anticipate receiving them so it’s often “months down the road” before they notice the checks were stolen and written in their name, Phillips said.

It’s impossible to know what percentage of check forgeries are solved, Phillips said, but he’s seen the Sheriff’s Office and Grass Valley and Nevada City police actively pursue cases. They sometimes send checks to the state Department of Justice for fingerprint analysis.

“People have to realize,” Phillips said, “when you’re passing stolen forged checks around town, you’re leaving a trail, and sooner or later you’re going to get caught.”

McCullough just wishes it was sooner rather than later.

“In a way, you and me both pay for it,” he said.

Grass Valley police make the following suggestions:

u If you lose checks, immediately call your bank and the police.

u Limit the amount of information on your checks. A check without a phone number, for example, might cause a clerk to check ID.

u Merchants should check ID.

u If a check appears suspicious, merchants should deny the purchase or call the police – or both.

– Doug Mattson


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