Frustrated by an “epidemic” of fraudulent checks, Spokane County authorities are urging merchants to start fingerprinting check-paying customers.
Police and sheriff’s deputies said Wednesday that $2 million in stolen or forged checks is passed in stores and restaurants each month.
The number of bad checks cashed in the unincorporated area of the county quadrupled between 1994 and 1995 - from about 350 to nearly 1,500, said sheriff’s detective Gary Smith.
The city also experienced a fourfold increase, police said. Statistics were not immediately available.
“It’s reached such an epidemic proportion that we need to do something,” police Sgt. Larry Evans said.
Personal checks have become a favorite target of burglars and drug dealers because they are easy to get and easy to cash, Evans said.
Authorities hope to counter the trend by convincing merchants to use more stringent standards when accepting checks, including gathering thumbprints from customers.
The thumbprint would serve as a deterrent and make it easier to track down criminals writing fraudulent checks, detectives said.
Similar programs in other parts of the country, including Montana and Western Washington, have been successful, they said.
In Spokane, clerks at many supermarkets and other stores don’t even ask for driver’s licenses from customers paying with checks.
Other clerks just aren’t very observant.
Detectives showed several examples of phony checks.
On one, a man had endorsed the name of an elderly woman on a stolen check and cashed it for $25 at a local grocery store. On another check - this one a phony payroll check - Spokane’s Division Street was spelled “Divicion.”
“They go through the motions (of checking ID), but they’re not really taking the time to do it properly,” said police detective Cheryl Graves.
Detectives hope all merchants at least will begin asking for identification but concede any change will be an uphill battle.
Many retailers worry that check-writing customers will feel insulted if they are asked for IDs, Evans said.
Ray Murphy, executive director of the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“If one business asks for identification and another does not, there’s a perception - and perception is reality - that they’re getting better service at the second place.”
But Murphy said it’s time to change that perception. The millions lost to stolen checks each month are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, he said.
“I promise you, the business isn’t eating that,” Murphy said. “I think we’ve got to educate consumers and let them know this is for their own protection.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WORKSHOPS Authorities will hold two free public workshops to offer businesses tips on fighting check fraud: May 12, 10-11 a.m., at the Red Lion Inn in the Spokane Valley May 15, 1-2:30 p.m., in the North Central High School auditorium, 1600 N. Howard.