Banks try to make it as easy as possible for a person to obtain a bank account. They don’t have many security requirements that one must go through to open a checking or savings account. Anyone can walk into a branch with a single form of identification, deposit money and walk out with an active account, a debit card and some starter checks.
But in comparison, when a police investigator contacts the bank to obtain all available information, they put the brakes on the easy accessibility. Often the investigator must jump through hoops to solve a case where 99% of the time the banks are the victims.
The following is a typical scenario in connection to stolen check cases. There are many ways a check can be stolen. Currently, in the Tri-State area, we are experiencing a high volume of thefts of checks from United States mailboxes, a practice commonly referred to as fishing. Fishing is the term used to describe when a sticky substance is applied to a bottle or some other item, and then a string is tied to the bottle or item, which is then used to lower the bottle/item into the mailbox to extract the mail. Many people still mail checks to pay bills, and they use the blue mailboxes scattered throughout the suburban neighborhoods to send their checks.
When an account holder discovers that a check, which they wrote to pay a bill, did not make it to its destination, they immediately contact their bank. The banks have the account holder write out an affidavit, which they sign indicating that they did not have anything to do with the theft and fraud. The banks then advise the account holders to file a police report.
Usually, by the time the victim files the police report, weeks or months have passed since the crime has been committed. Seldom do banks notify the account holder immediately, and the police are notified sooner rather than later. So, investigators contact the victim’s bank and depending on the bank, they usually spend about a half an hour on hold before they can speak to a customer service representative who ultimately gives a phone number to a fraud investigator. Once the fraud investigator is contacted, after more time wasted on hold, the case details are finally provided to them. The first question that needs to be answered, and one that most banks will not provide without a subpoena, is where was the bank of first deposit?
Some banks will not provide that information, nor will they give any additional information without first receiving a subpoena. Investigators typically ask the bank employee why they still need to provide a subpoena when they are ultimately going to be the victim.
So the investigator applies for a subpoena, and it takes a day or two to get it back from the prosecutor’s office. Then, the investigator must figure out how the bank wants to be served with the subpoena. Some banks want it to be served in person, some via email, some by fax, some regular mail and some want service to be via certified mail. So, depending on the service, and a lack of a standardized process, more time is lost.
A good tip is to request that the bank provide a photograph of the person who deposited the check and a photograph of the person who first withdrew money from the account after the fraudulent transaction occurred. If the check was deposited via a mobile device, then requesting an IP address and date and time of the transaction is needed.
Sometimes, depending on the amount that has passed since the crime, the surveillance video is no longer available and important evidential information is lost.
Lastly, investigators must ask why banks make it easy for thieves to deposit stolen checks into their customer’s accounts. They allow the customers to remove money from their accounts before the clearing of the checks. In the current environment, it is easier for a thief to commit the crime than it is for the investigator to investigate the crime, therefore begging the question: Have banks become complicit in their own victimization? You decide.
Reform is needed. All bank customers should be required to provide a photograph and fingerprint when opening an account. All existing account holders should also be required to provide that information. All transactions should be verified with that information prior to being executed. Finally, banks should be more cooperative with law enforcement and should expedite the flow of information. Catching the thieves should be everyone’s number one priority. It shouldn’t take a battle through red tape to uncover criminals.
Ryan Weber is a 13-year veteran law enforcement sergeant, currently assigned to the detective bureau in a northern New Jersey police department. He will be completing his bachelor’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University in April of 2019.