Local police are urging businesses and citizens to stay vigilant amid increased check fraud cases in some parts of Kings County.
Sgt. John Harris, a detective with the Corcoran Police Department, said he has about 35 fraudulent checks on his desk that are under investigation. Harris said criminals often get hired at a local business for a couple weeks until they get a paycheck. Then they print the routing number and other details onto blank check paper.
“The biggest problem is you can buy blank check stock at Staples,” Harris said.
Phony checks in hand, Harris said, criminals cash them at liquor stores that offer check cashing services. Harris said the store owners often don’t realize they’ve been scammed until their bank notifies them the check was fraudulent.
Because state law makes the theft a misdemeanor if the property is worth less than $950, Harris said he often sees fraudulent checks written for $949 or less.
Corcoran police arrested Ricardo Campos Jr., 20, on Feb. 20 following an investigation into more than $1,700 worth of fraudulent checks cashed at local businesses. Police said surveillance video showed Campos cashing checks at two businesses on Aug. 31, 2016.
Campos, who reportedly told police he used the fake checks to get money for drugs, was booked into the Kings County Jail on suspicion of burglary and check fraud. His bail was initially set at $100,000.
Court records show Campos pleaded not guilty to the charges. His bail was reduced to $30,000 and he has since bailed out of jail.
Harris said police have been urging businesses to collect identifying information from customers every time they cash a check. That information can help build a criminal case if the checks turn out to be fraudulent.
“We try to get our stores to take a photo, a thumbprint or a driver’s license every time they cash a check,” Harris said.
The Lemoore Police Department has had about a dozen reports of check fraud in the past three months.
Cpl. Matt Smith, a Lemoore police detective, said check fraud often starts with a crime of opportunity. Smith said criminals will steal checks from unsecured mailboxes, or steal a victim’s checkbook during a burglary. The thieves then use an eraser or chemical solution to remove the victim’s name and replace other identifying information.
Once they have the account information, criminals may cash checks for small amounts as a “test run.” If the transaction is successful, Smith said, the suspect may use a computer and blank check paper to produce more fake checks with the same account information.
“They do it until the checks don’t clear,” Smith said.
In some cases, Smith said, the thieves also steal a victim’s identification card and replace the photo with their own. Armed with a forged check and ID with a matching name, criminals can easily cash the checks almost anywhere.
Smith said thieves often complicate matters for investigators by printing bogus checks with the name of a legitimate business and bank information from an unrelated stolen check. These types of checks make it difficult for detectives to track down the actual victim.
“It’s absolutely awful,” Smith said.
Hanford police Lt. George Hernandez said Hanford hasn’t seen a significant increase in check fraud cases. Hernandez said the Hanford Police Department has fielded 34 reports of false or forged checks since January 2016.
Hernandez said criminals usually cash fraudulent checks over the weekend when banks are closed. Some businesses will take a chance and cash checks without verifying their authenticity.
“Come Monday morning, the banks call and say the checks are all bad,” Hernandez said.
Kings County Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Mark Bevens said the sheriff’s office hasn’t seen a significant increase in check fraud cases. Bevens said the agency has investigated 27 fraud cases so far this year, up slightly from 24 cases during the same period in 2016.
The sheriff’s office arrested a Coalinga woman last Sunday for allegedly using fraudulent checks to steal an unknown amount of money from the Lemoore 4-H Club. A representative of the club contacted the sheriff’s office on Feb. 9 to report the fraud. Bank statements showed the checks had been cashed at businesses in Lemoore, Visalia and Selma.
Authorities said the 4-H Club checks had been altered to replace the club’s information with the name of Lisa Murberger and a Coalinga address. Murberger, 40, reportedly confessed to cashing several of the checks.
Murberger remains in the Kings County Jail charged with commercial burglary, forgery, possession of stolen property and an out-of-county bench warrant. Her bail is set at $75,000. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges
Smith said citizens can protect themselves against check fraud by keeping close tabs on their bank accounts, checking their mailboxes regularly and taking outgoing checks to the post office. Check thefts often involve payments the victim wasn’t expecting, such as gifts from relatives, or outgoing mail.
Smith said he’s started seeing cases where thieves are using a banking app on their smartphone to photograph forged checks and deposit them into a fictitious account.
“People in this day and age have to monitor their information because it’s getting stolen left and right,” Smith said.