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Follow the bouncing checks

Times Staff Writer

I’ve never set foot in a PetSmart and haven’t owned a critter since my family’s beloved boxer, Archie, slobbered off this mortal coil sometime during the Nixon years.

So that $38.28 payment to the pet store jumped off the screen as I did my online banking a few Saturdays ago.

There, taunting me from the signature line of Check No. 3512’s electronic image, was a big, flowery, cursive rendition of “Kim Christensen.”

My name, all right, but not my signature -- and definitely not the scribble of someone who got straight Ds in penmanship. Not only had my mark been forged, but judging from its feminine flourish, it was by someone who assumed, like untold others before, that Kim must be a girl.

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“Damn it!” I yelped (about the forgery thing, not the girl’s-name thing, which I’m pretty used to by now.) “Someone stole one of our checks!!”

Then I spotted a check to a Huntington Beach business I had never visited, and it hit me: Someone had stolen all of our checks -- 150 to be exact. PetSmart would be but the first stop on a weeks-long tour of hot-check hell.

I’d ordered a new batch of checks a couple of weeks earlier and had no way of knowing that some lowlife had got to them before my wife and I did. The bank says it mailed them, so it appears that our letter carrier left the box on the front porch when it didn’t fit through the slot in the door.

My bad for not having a better mailbox. But like millions who pay bills online, I rarely write checks anymore, except for the yard guy and miscellaneous expenses.

In 1995, U.S. banks processed 50 billion checks. By 2003, the latest year tallied by the Federal Reserve, the number had slipped to 37 billion. This year, look for a slight uptick, thanks to my larcenous alter ego.

Banks lost $711 million to check fraud in 2005, according to the Fed’s most recent study, but no one has good numbers on the billions more it costs consumers and merchants each year.

Fortunately, Wells Fargo agents work the phones on Saturdays, and one of them froze our account so that no other checks could clear.

That Monday, I’d go to the bank, open a new account, sign an affidavit of forgery for the two cashed checks and get a full refund of $222.18. I also had the major credit bureaus place alerts on our files, so no new accounts could open without our knowledge.

Unfortunately, none of those steps would stop the thief from passing more checks, which soon were bouncing from La Canada Flintridge to San Clemente, with our names and address on them.

Google “check forgery” and “police report” and you’ll learn that if you’re a victim of the former, you’ll need the latter to prove your innocence.

Good luck.

A Long Beach police officer listened to my story, put me on hold for a couple of minutes and then said he couldn’t take a report. Because it involved the mail, he said, the theft was a federal case, not a police matter.

“You’ll need to report this to the U.S. postal inspector,” he said, and wouldn’t budge.

Well, thanks, but it seemed the Postal Service had done enough already. Besides, I was determined to get my exculpatory police report, and nothing less would do.

At headquarters the next morning, I was primed to play the “I’m a taxpayer!” card and demand a report be taken. But if I’ve learned anything in 30 years as a reporter, a good bit of it spent in cop shops large and small, it’s this: The squeaky wheel in the front lobby almost never gets the grease. Arrested, maybe. Favorable treatment, not a chance.

I walked to the window ready to throw myself on the mercy of the public servant behind the glass but didn’t have to. He flipped through a fat paperback copy of the California penal code, reckoned that my complaint fit under “forgery” and sent an officer out to interview me.

“Thanks a bunch,” I said afterward. “When can I get a copy of the report?”

“Usually in about three weeks,” he said.

Three weeks? Are you kidding? I’ll be in debtors’ prison by then. So this is what a stroke feels like, I thought, as my neck muscles tightened, my vision blurred and acid bubbled up around my Adam’s apple.

Only by the grace of a sympathetic records supervisor was the wait time cut by about a week -- and none too soon.

It seems that without ever leaving the comfort of my own home, I had used checks for purchases at a CVS pharmacy in Seal Beach ($63.21), a Wal-Mart in Long Beach ($193.41), a Sports Chalet in La Canada Flintridge ($200), a couple of Marshall’s clothing stores and a string of Vons, Ralph’s and Albertsons in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

My wife got in on the act too, showing up as the signer of a second forged check at CVS, which apparently was our favorite pharmacy. We bounced only one at Rite Aid.

By then I’d made a mental list of all the supermarkets and drugstores we hadn’t heard from yet, and it was not comforting. Just knowing that someone has six of your checkbooks and a ginned-up ID to use them is enough to spark alternating currents of infuriation and helplessness.

The cops have much bigger fish to fry, so it came as no surprise when I called the forgery section after a dozen checks had bounced and was told not to bother forwarding any new information because it would get very low priority.

Because tracking down people is part of my job, I also tried the do-it-yourself route. But it’s not easy to nab a crook when the only suspect’s name you have to go on is your own (see O.J Simpson vs. the Real Killer). Then again, guilty people sometimes leave behind clues, and there were at least tidbits to glean from copies of the bad checks.

On some, the forger listed our real phone number, which is in the book, but no address. On others, he or she apparently made up numbers or picked them at random. One belonged to a woman who was a little put off by my call.

“What?” she said, sounding like someone who had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

“I’m not accusing you of anything, ma’am,” I said. “I’m just trying to figure out how your phone number got on one of my stolen checks.”

Click.

I’m still looking, but the odds are long. Not so for the aggrieved merchants and their collection agencies, which have had no trouble finding me. For a while demand letters came in every day, so many that I started reaching for the mail with about as much gusto as I would a live hand grenade.

Most took a polite tack, such as one from Kroger Co., parent of Ralph’s, which got stuck with two bad checks.

“We certainly understand that an occasional error does occur and we thank you in advance for correcting this matter promptly,” it read, asking for $84, but, please, no personal checks.

Maybe Kroger was just being nice because I’m from its home state of Ohio and I’d stamped about a million cans while working there in high school and college. Others were more strident, including a check-clearing company that wanted Wal-Mart’s $193.43 right now, plus a $25 fee.

“TeleCheck has entered your name in its NATIONAL COMPUTER FILES and forwarded the debt to its collection affiliate,” it read. “Until this is resolved, TeleCheck may not approve your transactions at more than 300,000 merchants and banks who use TeleCheck nationally.”

Glad to hear it. That just means 300,000 fewer places where someone posing as me might cash my checks.

For sheer creativity, though, I give kudos to the “collection affiliate” who left a recorded and somewhat robotic message on our home answering machine.

“Hello, this is Ed Taylor,” he said. “I’m calling you today to attempt to advise you that your status has changed. I need you to call me as soon as you receive this message, as this matter commands your immediate attention. . . . This is not a sales call and we need to hear from you immediately.”

Not only did Ed leave a toll-free number, he even offered to hang around till 10 p.m. to take the call. What a guy!

An online search of Ed’s name and number yielded postings by others who had matters that commanded immediate attention but couldn’t get him to the phone. One poor schmo said Ed called every day for a week -- with the same recorded message -- even though he’d simply inherited some check bouncer’s number when he moved into a new house.

Turns out Ed is with a company named ClearCheck and was calling me about the CVS forgeries. A woman who answered the phone said Ed had just stepped into a meeting, but she insisted he really existed and transferred me to his voice mail to prove it. Sure sounded like Ed, but still no callback to prove it.

This much is true about ClearCheck and the other companies I’ve dealt with: They’ve all been very professional and easy to get along with. (Actual deadbeats, your experience may vary.)

The key is to provide solid documentation: a brief cover letter, a police report, a notarized affidavit reflecting the account number and range of stolen checks, and a “To Whom It May Concern” letter from the bank stating that the account was subjected to fraud.

I keep copies of everything, always follow up to make sure the bad-check recipients received my paperwork, then call to request a letter saying they’ve scratched us from their most-wanted lists. So far, I’ve cleared our names on all 20 or so of the checks that have surfaced.

Another 130 of the little ticking time bombs are still out there, so chances are it’s not over. Still, there’s been a nice lull in the action, a good three weeks since the last dunning letter. Maybe my alter ego has given up and gone straight.

Or maybe I’m away on a really expensive vacation that nobody’s told me about yet.

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kim.christensen@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

If your checks are stolen

Banks lost $711 million to check fraud in 2005, according to the latest study by the Federal Reserve, and estimated losses to consumers and businesses are as high as $20 billion a year. This is what to do if you become a victim:

Act quickly

* Immediately report the theft to your bank, close your account and open a new one.

* Obtain a notarized affidavit of forgery from the bank showing the range of stolen checknumbers.

* File a police report and get a copy.

Protect yourself

Place credit alerts on your files at major credit reporting bureaus so that new accounts can’t be opened without your knowledge.

Respond promptly

When you get payment-demand letters from businesses and collection agencies, send a brief cover letter and copies of documentation showing your checks were stolen.

Follow up

Contact collection agencies to ensure that your name has been cleared from their bad-checks list.

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Sources: Federal Reserve Bank, Nilson Report, Times research


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