Check counterfeiting topic for Assembly

Senate finance chief wants issue on legislative agenda

December 03, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Troubled by the spread of check counterfeiting and its impact on businesses and individuals, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said yesterday that he intends to begin discussions with the attorney general's office and banks to find solutions.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat whose committee handles banking industry concerns, also said he plans to raise the issue at a Senate leadership meeting Monday in Annapolis because of the millions of dollars businesses lose every year and the credit problems individuals suffer after their stolen identifications are used to cash the bogus checks.

"I think it's a compelling enough reason at least for the legislature to look at this and bring together at least the attorney general's office and the banking institutions," Middleton said. "The penalties for falsified checks certainly is an issue that the legislature can address."

Middleton's call for the General Assembly to examine the issue follows a recent article in The Sun about counterfeiter Hugh M.A. Wade, who has forged checks for more than a decade with only minimal penalties. The article also showed that check counterfeiting has been on the rise since 1996 in Maryland and across the country, attributed in large part to advances in computer capabilities.

Last year, counterfeit check cases reported by banks increased fivefold over 1996 to 10,000 incidents - a figure that does not include the countless fake checks passed at grocery stores, liquor stores, check cashing stores and other businesses. Each of the cases reported by banks can represent as much as $300,000.

In addition, counterfeiters often use identification stolen from innocent victims and their names on the fake checks, ruining their credit - as Baltimore counterfeiter Maurice M.A. Wade has done for years.

Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor is concerned about the growth in check counterfeiting and would consider proposals by the legislature to combat the problem.

"Given the governor's commitment to the success of Maryland's small businesses ... the administration would be open to reviewing any legislation that would effectively deal with this issue outside the criminal law arena," DeLeaver said. She said the governor does not want to expand criminal punishments for check counterfeiting, for example.

"It is clearly an abuse of today's technology," DeLeaver said.

Banking and fraud experts say that check-printing materials are so widely available that anyone could become an instant counterfeiter. Many of the necessary supplies can be purchased at local office-supply stores.

Fraud experts say access to check-printing materials should be limited or, at a minimum, those purchasing check-printing materials should be required to register.

Law enforcement authorities say stiffer penalties for such white-collar crimes would likely serve as a deterrent. Some states, such as Georgia, have mandatory sentences for repeat offenders who commit felony fraud.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he generally does not support using mandatory sentences. He said he believes the laws on the books are sufficient.

"The tools are there," Frosh said. "It's partly a problem of the advances we've made in technology. But it would be a tragedy if the advantages of technology were not available to industry or individuals because of their potential use in counterfeiting."

Middleton said the legislature should look into the issue because of the harm many have suffered because of counterfeit checks. The Senate's leadership meets Monday in preparation for the 90-day legislative session that begins Jan. 14.

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