No arrests in fraud scheme

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 20, 2002

By Wednesday, 12 forged checks had been discovered.

The next day, the total had risen to 42.

All told, 10 local check-cashing outlets were bilked of more than $19,000.

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The total may increase, when others are found and added to the total.

"They've probably moved on by now," said Austin Police Department Detective Sgt. Tom Stiehm. "That's the way they operate."

Stiehm and Capt. Curt Rude reacted swiftly last week when the scheme was discovered.

They directed the Austin Area Chamber of Commence to issue a "mushroom alert" to all members.

The fraud involves high technology and low attention to smart business details.

Last week's scheme involved

fraudulent payroll checks drawn on Austin's second-largest employer, Quality Pork Processors, Inc.

According to investigators, they believe a legitimate QPP payroll check was used to make the copies presented for payment at local businesses.

When the individuals cashed the checks, they only presented an Immigration and Naturalization Service alien identification card without a photograph.

Despite the fact that QPP issues each employee its own photo identification card with a one-of-a-kind serial number, none of the check cashing outlets requested any more identification than the INS alien registration card.

Another eye-catching fact to investigators was the amounts on the checks: they were for amounts larger than the typical QPP weekly paycheck for production workers.

Both Rude and Stiehm said all of the people cashing the checks were Hispanic.

Also, the first forged checks appeared July 12, when QPP pays its workers and the next batch of forged checks appeared Thursday, when the latest payroll checks were issued.

Investigators do not believe 52 different people each cashed a forged checks. Rather, five or six may have cashed the checks.

But false identification incidents are a far too common problem for Austin police for them to be surprised.

"The problem is there are so many false IDs in this town that nobody really knows what they're getting anymore," Stiehm said.

He said the problem of false identification came to light in June 1999.

Austin police investigated a stabbing death at a southeast residence on Father's Day.

"Everyone we talked to in the investigation had two or even three names.," Stiehm said.

Also challenging authorities are the high technology scanners people have in their homes or personal computers with printers.

The fraudulent checks discovered last week were "very good quality copies of the real thing," Rude said.

Two years ago, The Joseph Company was victimized in a similar scheme.

In that incident, authentic checks from the company are stolen and used by the thieves.

More than $50,000 in fraudulent checks were cashed in that incident, which authorities believe was the work of a group of people who fled to North Dakota.

Rude and Stiehm said, failing to ask for multiple photo identification and cashing a checks puts the check-cashing outlets at risk.

"This has nothing to do with QPP other than that they are using fake payroll checks," Stiehm said. "What it does do is put the check-cashers at risk for cashing the checks. They're out the money."

Investigators are reviewing store and bank surveillance tapes, where the checks, all for amounts in excess of the weekly QPP payroll amount for production workers, were presented and cashed.

No suspects have been questioned and no arrests made.

"These people moved in and then moved out then they were done. I don't believe they are in Austin anymore,"

Stiehm said.

For QPP's reaction, turn to Page 2A.

Lee Bonorden can be reached at 434-2232 or by e-mail at