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Paynesville Press - October 1, 2003

Businesses, police ask people to show identification

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Customers should expect to be asked for identification when cashing a check, agreed two dozen members of the Paynesville retail community, who attended a seminar last week about proper check cashing procedures.

The seminar, hosted by the Paynesville Area Chamber of Commerce and taught by the Paynesville Police Department, focused on teaching area business owners and employees how to avoid cashing stolen or forged checks and how to collect the information the police needs to prosecute writers of checks returned for insufficient funds. The seminar also included information about the Minnesota Crime Alert Network and its benefits to businesses.

The #1 thing to do to avoid cashing a stolen or forged check is to always ask for identification. "If the person is unknown to you, always ask to see a picture ID, preferably a drivers license," said police officer Joe Schmitz, who processes all the bad checks for the police department and led the seminar.

Never accept a check from someone other than the persons listed on the check and never accept third-party checks because those checks could be stolen or forged, said Schmitz.

If the information on their driver's license doesn't match the information on the check, if the person cashing the check doesn't look like the picture on the license, or if their signature does not match, retail personnel should be on guard, added Schmitz. Businesses have the right to refuse any check they believe is suspicious.

Driver's license numbers are critical to help the police locate and prosecute people who write checks with insufficient funds, Schmitz said. The police use a form filled out by the business person who accepted the check to locate the bad-check writer.

Lately, these forms have come to the police without complete information, said police chief Kent Kortlever. Without basic information especially the writer's driver's license number and name the police cannot prosecute. Any details about the writer, such as a description or a license plate number, can be helpful as well.

Schmitz also advised that businesses should never accept post-dated checks or checks to hold; should avoid checks for small purchases that are written for large amounts over the purchase; and should be aware of people writing two or more checks in one day, especially if the second check is for a large amount compared to the first. Bad checks should be turned over to the police as soon as possible, as collecting and prosecuting is more difficult as time passes, said Schmitz.

In 2002 the Paynesville Police Department processed over 200 bad checks and collected on about half of those. So far this year, about 160 checks have come across Schmitz's desk. The police's goal is to prosecute bad-check writers, not act as a collection agency, said Schmitz.

Joel Burr, owner of Joel's Family Foods, has noticed more returned checks for insufficient funds and closed accounts as the economy continues to decline. According to Burr, who attended the seminar, these checks are likely to come from out of town and are usually for groceries that he believes people need.

Doris Wendlandt, owner of Queen Bee's Bar and Grill, also said she has received more bad checks this year than last. Some of the checks are paid as soon as she notifies the customer; about half, however, she turns over to the police for prosecution in hopes of collecting.

Burr said he knows the value of checking identification but said it's difficult to enforce. Young employees can be intimidated when they ask for identification, and customers can become irate, he said.

Customers need to understand, he said, that tellers are just doing their job by asking for identification.

Customers that balk at showing identification or get upset are the ones that should be checked the most closely, said Schmitz.

Kortlever noted that there has been a recent increase in checks stolen from cars in the area and that retail personnel should beware of these stolen checks.

Membership in the Minnesota Crime Alert Network is one way that businesses could be alerted to stolen check cashing trends, said Kortlever. The network, made up of law enforcement agencies throughout the state, notifies members about certain crimes and crime trends, sometimes targeting specific business types.

For instance, if bars in neighboring communities have been victims of a rash of stolen checks, bar owners in the network can be notified, via fax or e-mail, to be on the lookout for the checks, said Kortlever, who encourages area business to take part in the program.

The network can also notify members of other types of crimes, like robberies targeting specific types of businesses. Kortlever noted that he recently used the network to warn neighboring communities of a rash of vending machine thefts.

Membership is $12 per year. Businesses must have either a fax or e-mail to belong to the network.

For more information on the Minnesota Crime Alert Network, contact Kortlever at 320-243-7346.

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