Expert Offers More on Bad-Paper Chase

Times Staff Writer

There are consumer subjects of interest, and then there are consumer subjects of interest.

And with our recent discussion of just what all those supermarket managers are looking for when they examine and approve personal checks, we seem to have hit a nerve with a lot of readers who had been pondering the same thing: Do they really know what they're supposed to be looking for?

Alas, according to our source, bad-paper expert Robert Cekosky, the majority of those harassed store managers might just as well be poring over an Italian birth certificate as a check written on a local bank. With distressing regularity, they routinely OK promotional discount coupons printed to resemble checks, counter checks (which can often be picked up in a bank by anyone strolling in) and checks that have been "kited" so amateurishly that no 4-year-old would dare turn them in to his kindergarten teacher. The annual cost: about $4 billion, which we all end up paying.

Cekosky, drawing on a background in the collection business, became fascinated with the entire field of bad paper (checks, travelers' checks, drafts, credit cards, et al.)--the source of so much of his business. He spent four years researching his book, "Check and Credit Card Fraud Prevention Manual" (available from the author, $65, P. O. Box 26118, Los Angeles 90026).

The earlier discussion here stressed a number of points that Cekosky believes those store managers should be looking for when they examine a check.

For instance: A high percentage of bum checks don't have a pre-printed number (not to mention the individual's name and address) or have a low number, indicating a new account--one that may have been recently opened by a flake with a proclivity for writing bad checks who has bounced from bank to bank.

Number of Questions

Readers found all of this fascinating, and it flushed forth an equally fascinating number of "Yes, but . . . " questions.

P.A. of Hollywood, for instance, wonders why store managers insist on demanding and noting on the back of the check the customer's home telephone number. "If I wanted to cheat, I wouldn't put my number down and wait by the phone to be caught. Let me know if there's a reason for this silly request."

Well, there really isn't, Cekosky concedes. It's a bit of information that's about as useful as noting on the back of the check that its writer has brown eyes. The only halfway valid reason for the practice, he notes, is psychological. The passer of a phony check is quite aware of what he is doing, and he is apprehensive about being caught. Being asked to invent a bogus phone number doesn't sound like much of a nerve jangler. But if he's new to the game, he might panic.

And S.P. of Pomona raises an interesting point in this matter of being suspicious of low-numbered checks: "Except for the first batch of 25 checks that the banks give as a starter kit, the choice of what to number the checks depends on the customer. Therefore, there is really no logic to refusing to accept checks numbered less than 200." (One hotel chain, cited in the earlier article, instituted a policy of not accepting checks numbered below 200 and thereby cut its bad-check losses dramatically.)

Here again Cekosky concedes a valid point since, sure enough, when ordering your first batch of checks you can specify that the numbering begin at 201, 501, 801 or whatever. In some parts of the country, he adds, banks have started imprinting all checks (above the customer's name and address) with a number indicating when the account was opened. Thus, the figure 82284, would be a dead giveaway that the account was opened last Aug. 22 regardless of the pre-printed number on the check. Unfortunately, the practice is still rare in California.

"There's no really foolproof way to protect yourself against checks that have been pre-numbered artificially," Cekosky concedes, "but a valid point to keep in mind is that your average crook doesn't stay very long in one place. So, you can get a slight handle on this sort of thing by comparing the address on the check against the address on his driver's license. If they're different, and he's renewed his license a year or two ago, then it means he's moved in the meantime."

In other words, if the check is No. 625 and the address on it is different from his year-old license renewal, there's cause for suspicion. The reason is that the average individual writes about 200 checks a year, and that check numbered 625 would suggest that he's been at the same address for roughly three years--when, clearly, he hasn't.

But a more worrisome problem is brought up by J.M. of Yorba Linda: "One reads of and hears everywhere that people should destroy (credit-card) carbons and refuse to give over the phone or otherwise reveal their plastic charge-card number. Right? Well, when cashing a check, the teller or cashier requires two IDs--the driver's license number and the credit-card number, both of which are immediately and indelibly inscribed on the check. My son refuses to give his Visa or MasterCard number this way, and he invariably has to go over the teller or cashier's head to find someone who even understands what he's talking about. How do you feel about it?"

While Cekosky and I share J.M.'s and J.M.'s son's concern to some extent, there's a mitigating factor in how a credit-card number is obtained by an outsider. After all, every time we use the card we're literally giving the number to someone . There's always the risk that the waiter, the manager, the cashier or someone else will jot down our name and number for sinister purposes.

A Traceable Pattern

But, Cekosky adds, it's not nearly the risk of blindly giving your number to someone calling you on the phone with a stupendous bargain that you can't resist. There's no one to trace in this instance. But a store clerk or manager (or bank teller) playing hanky-panky with your credit-card number will establish a pattern that will, sooner or later, lead back to them. It's not the greatest comfort in the world, of course, but it's about all we have.

Incidentally, unlike phony checks, counterfeit traveler's checks and credit cards--also a mushrooming growth industry--require a more sophisticated breed of crook who somehow manages to run only about half a foot behind the issuing companies and their new technologies.

When a member of the light-fingered brigade lifts your name, address and credit-card number, what does he do with it? Usually, Cekosky says, he transfers the name and number to a stolen credit card that is too hot to handle otherwise. (It may have been reported stolen, for example.) This is done, he explains, by pressing the old indentations flat with a hot iron (and solvents for the ink) and then stamping in your name and valid number.

"This is why," Cekosky adds, "we advise people accepting credit cards to flash them in the light. No matter how skillfully the name and number have been stamped over, the plastic around them will still appear dull and lifeless when flashed like this."

Mass-produced counterfeit cards--for hit-and-run use not requiring telephone verification--"can usually be spotted by their edges," Cekosky says. "Crooks normally print them on sheets of plastic and cut them out with scissors. This leaves sharp edges that are quite different from the rounded edges of a legitimate card."

And, in some parts of the country, stores are using a fluorescent counter scanner to separate counterfeit cards from the genuine ones.

"When you pass a MasterCard under the light," Cekosky says, "you see the circles glow. On the Visa, the dove will glow. Pass an American Express card under the light and 'AMEX' will show up."

How do you spot a counterfeit American Express traveler's check?

"Turn the check face down," Cekosky advises, "moisten your thumb and rub the left-hand emblem. The left-hand emblem, but not the one on the right, is printed with a special ink that smudges. No smudge--it's a phony."

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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