His checks are bogus, but damage done is real

Counterfeit: A Baltimore man's check frauds are a case study in a national problem. Businesses are losing millions. And ID thefts devastate victims' lives.

November 23, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County fraud investigator Debby Chenoweth had seen the pattern before - a familiar cluster of crimes that rang a bell.

First, the rash of stolen driver's licenses, student IDs and birth certificates starting more than a year ago. Then, the wave of bad checks papered across Central Maryland, bearing the names of unwitting victims whose identities had been used. And, eventually, reports of businesses swindled by the counterfeit checks.

The signs all pointed to Hugh Maurice Allen Wade - again.

Chenoweth, an investigator who has been on the police force for 26 years, has spent nearly a decade chasing Wade and has learned along the way that he's not a typical crook.

She has watched him evolve, getting better at making the bogus checks that have extracted hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks and businesses. Long ago, he abandoned scissors and paste and went high-tech to turn out ever more sophisticated documents. In and out of prison, he used his time inside to get three college degrees.

Chenoweth saw Wade as the brains behind one of her county's first large counterfeiting operations and as a case study in a serious national problem.

Check forgery costs businesses tens of millions of dollars a year, experts say. Banks reported more than 10,000 counterfeit check cases across the country last year.

Authorities in Maryland say the state has been hit by several check counterfeiting cases, some of them million-dollar operations. One state prosecutor calls the amount of money lost to these schemes "breathtaking."

Apart from the lost money, counterfeit checks devastate victims whose IDs are stolen from purses and wallets in schools, churches, parked cars and businesses.

Her credit rating ruined, Julia Gaston of Prince George's County can't write a check anymore and is forced to pay her bills with cash or money orders. Ruth Ann Bengel was turned away when she tried to refinance her home in Timonium.

The crime is booming because it's easy, it's low-risk, and it usually pays off big.

For $29.99, anyone can buy a basic kit from the local office supply store that includes a software program and blank check stock to produce 100 authentic-looking checks on a computer. By spending $200 to $300 for magnetic ink cartridges, a counterfeiter can fool electronic check readers.

Besides being affordable, Chenoweth says, check counterfeiting rarely results in long sentences. "That's the frustrating part." she says. "There's no rehabilitation for this type of crime. There's no incentive for them to stop."

In the mix are small-time operators such as a California man convicted in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles last year of stealing checks made payable to David Letterman, Tom Cruise and others. He counterfeited them, netting $162,000 in 10 days.

At the other extreme are major rings such as the one federal authorities dubbed Operation Paper Caper, a 1996 scheme run by a group of Vietnamese nationals who attempted to steal $35 million through counterfeit checks and other fraud schemes in 22 states before being caught in a sting operation. Thirty-six were sent to prison to serve sentences as long as three years.

Wade's schemes put him in the middle. And these schemes so familiar to Chenoweth got her attention again. This time, she hoped she could build a case in Baltimore Circuit Court that would stick and put Wade away for a long time.

"We've been each other's nemesis," Chenoweth says.

The irresistible lure of fast, easy money

For much of Wade's life, the possibility of unlimited cash was irresistible. "It's been an awful lot of money," the 55-year-old says through mesh screens and a Plexiglas divider in the Baltimore City Detention Center, where he awaits a trial scheduled for February. "I don't want to be portrayed as a notorious criminal. It's addictive."

Shortly after federal authorities caught him in 1989 for his first foray into check counterfeiting, Wade was doing it again.

"I remember telling my wife one day, we were doing really bad ... I said, `I'm going to buy you a car today.'" That was in 1990, he says. "I made a check out on a plain white piece of paper," he says.

The check got them a used car. He doesn't remember what kind. But somehow, the trick worked. It was too easy for a man who had seen the inside of a cell more than once for more serious crimes.

Wade grew up in Baltimore, where at age 11, he was in a reading program for gifted students. By age 16, he landed in prison on a robbery conviction. At 29, he went back for robbery and heroin distribution.

In prison, he earned two bachelor's degrees, in political science from Bemidji State University in Minnesota and in sociology from the University of Kansas, officials at the schools say.

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