Friday, September 7, 2007

Frank Calls The Cops: Part 1 of 2

I called the cops twice last week. Two nights in a row.

Late at night on Labor Day, or I suppose, technically early the morning after Labor Day, I had a guy come in and ask if we take checks. We do, but not without a driver's license and an approval from our check-checking machine. We only take checks for the amount of purchase, and only within other guidelines too. So I gave him a conditional "yes".

He was one of the several people in 3 cars who were all on their way back to Illinois from (I later found out) a "Gay Pride" event of some sort, probably in Atlanta. The men were all African-American, and exhibited varying levels of Flamboyance, from some guys who may have been straight, to one full-out transvestite, in a Christian Dior head scarf and 3-inch long glittery orange fingernails.

I know a little bit about how interstate scams work, I have seen them before. While a single, large check would have been denied for being over our maximum amount, four separate guys each writing a 50 dollar check would raise no flags in our system. The first guy, the one who had asked if we accepted checks, wanted to write one for fifty dollars worth of gas. At this point, I didn't realize that five of the guys with him wanted to write checks too, and I wasn't overly suspicious. I ran his check through the machine, collected the pertinent information from his Illinois Driver's License, and set the gas pump for fifty dollars.

Then comes the next guy who wants to write a check for fifty dollars. BBRRRIIINNNGG, went the alarm bells. Ooookaaay, let's see if it goes through my machine. OK, it went through, well let's see your ID. Now the guy's ID had some damage. Some rather intentional looking damage, right over the ID number. Someone had scraped at the ID number, partially obscuring it. As the guy started to tell me what his ID number was, as if I would take his word on it, I realized that the attempt at removing the number had been unsuccessful; I could still make it out, just barely. I pointed out to him that he should get a new ID with a more legible number, and he apologized, blaming the defacement on his boyfriend. I let that comment slide right on past me, and moved on to the next customer, who already had out his checkbook.

Now the alarm bells were clanging like crazy, and I started looking at the checks with an eagle eye. I looked back at the last check at some point, and realized (AFTER accepting it) that it had been altered, too. The routing number had three digits scratched off, leaving little, barely perceptible, white marks in the almost-white face of the check. I noticed this as I ran the third check through the scanner, which came back with a "Decline Check" message. I guess they had been running their checks in order of most likely to be accepted, just to see how far they could get. Well, I handed back the declined check, explained that the machine didn't tell me why it declined, and sat back to see what was next.

Then in came the transvestite with... a checkbook. He wanted to pay for the previously attempted purchase with a check of his own. Even though the alarm bells in my head were now rattling my teeth, I accepted this guy's check (from an online Brokerage Account), ran it through the machine, which accepted it, and asked for his ID. This is where things got interesting. His ID, (from Illinois, like all the others) had THE SAME DAMAGE over the license number as the second guy's had. This was no mere accident, this was systematic alteration of identification, for the likely purpose of committing check fraud. I looked up at him, and said something about this problem, and he quickly murmured an apology and switched ID's!! He went from one with a male picture, to one with a picture of the blond, made-up female face he was currently sporting.

Now, it all sounds cut-and-dried when I apply my 20/20 hindsight, but at the time there were about 14 of these guys in various stages of buying gas, browsing the aisles, checking out, coming back in from the gas pumps for their change, Etc., AND there were a few other customers unrelated to these guys, who I also had to deal with. With 20 customers and only one of me, I didn't have much time at all to concentrate, but I did have a moment when all of the check-fraud crew were outside, when I was able to call the local Police. I had the dispatcher on the line before I realized that I didn't know exactly what I was accusing them of. All of their checks were within company guidelines, and they had paid for everything they got. The best I could get at describing the situation was "If they don't have any kind of outstanding warrants it would surprise me!"

Well, Officer Doug showed up in the blink of an eye, and rolled in to ask who it was. Well, I wasn't really sure it WAS anybody, if you put it like that, plus one of the guys had come back in and was standing right in front of me, and I was so unsure of myself, I just wanted to melt. While I waited for my line of customers to clear out so I could talk to Officer Doug, Car #1 and Car#2 left, leaving the third car behind. I VERY quickly mentioned to Doug that they were using altered ID's, and he jumped back out the door to stop Car #3 before they got away too. Several minutes later, he came back in to say that the ID he was given checked out, and he didn't have enough to hold anyone. He also chastised me just a little for not telling him earlier, so he could have gotten Cars 1 and 2. So, No one got arrested that night. but the next night, someone did.

More about that tomorrow in Frank Calls the Cops: Part 2.

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