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Forgers Beating Customers to New Checks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Newly issued blank checks are being stolen and fraudulently cashed in a rash of crimes targeting the western San Fernando Valley, authorities said Thursday.

So far, the spree in the Woodland Hills, West Hills and Calabasas areas has cost Wells Fargo Bank alone tens of thousands of dollars, said bank spokeswoman Kathleen Shilkret.

At the bank’s Warner Ranch branch on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, 25 to 30 incidents of check fraud have been reported since the end of July, Shilkret said.

All stemmed from newly ordered or reordered checkbooks that never reached customers, she said, adding that other banks have been affected too.

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“We’re having an outbreak in the West Valley,” Shilkret said.

Investigators from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Los Angeles Division are looking into whether the checkbooks are being taken from mail trucks or post offices, said Postal Inspector Pamela Prince.

“We have been apprised of the situation and are investigating it,” Prince said. “There’s not much more I can say.”

One victim, a customer of the Warner Ranch branch, said he had been told by a bank manager that the Woodland Hills Post Office is a suspected source of the problem.

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“They think someone is stealing the blank checks out of the post office,” said the customer, who asked not to be named because his home address was printed on his missing checks.

The customer said he learned of the thefts about noon Wednesday when an alert teller at a Wells Fargo branch in West Los Angeles beeped him.

The teller asked whether he knew the woman who was trying to cash one of his checks at that very moment. One of his checks had already been cashed for $200 earlier in the day, the teller informed him, as the woman fled.

“I was completely befuddled,” the customer said. “Then it all became painfully clear that the checks I’ve been waiting for were the checks this woman was using.”

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A presumed ring of thieves is intercepting boxes of the blank checkbooks and then distributing the checks to “mules” who forge the owners’ names and cash them, Shilkret said.

Bank detectives and postal inspectors have come up with a list of 25 suspects who have a record of check fraud, she said. Bank officials are urging customers waiting for new checkbooks to phone their bank branch if the checks don’t arrive promptly.

Southern California Savings’ Calabasas branch has also reported thefts, though only a handful so far, said Al Sommerville, vice president and director of audit and security.

Sommerville said he learned of the thefts only this week and was looking into the matter.

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“It takes a while for them to cycle out,” Sommerville said of fraudulently cashed checks. “When you see a statement all of a sudden you see a check you didn’t write.”


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