December 17, 2002 11:00 pm
WATCH OUT: Merchants are being taught to be on guard against customers using phony identification and stolen credit cards. ().
WATCH OUT: Merchants are being taught to be on guard against customers using phony identification and stolen credit cards. ().

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

"I shop here a lot, you know me ... and you want to see some identification?"

"Yes, two pieces of ID, including a driver's license or state-issued identification, with your photo. And I'll watch you sign the receipt and check it against the signature on your identification."

That type of conversation could be taking place more often in Union County businesses in the future as merchants try to clamp down on fraud that results in financial losses to the businesses.

Merchants who may have been lax in checking ID for credit card charges or for cashing checks — or may not have been examining money closely enough — may soon be clamping down as the results of knowledge they have picked up in seminars offered by local banking officials.

For one thing, the seminars have made merchants more aware that such fraudulent activity is becoming more prevalent in the community, said Sandra Erskine, manger of the La Grande branch of U.S. Bank.

This was substantiated by La Grande Police Sgt. Gary Bell, who has attended some of the seminars and been part of the presentations, including displaying counterfeit money. He is among the officers who investigate when merchants report fraud or receiving fake money.

Erskine started the free seminars in November to help make merchants more aware that there are people out there passing a lot of counterfeit bills and forged checks, using false ID and stolen credit cards to defraud local businesses. La Grande police officers have been part of the presentations as they inform merchants of what to do if they spot people attempting identity theft.

The next seminar will be in January, Erskine said.

The four seminars held to date have been well attended, even as merchants are in their busiest season, she said.

Some instruction was given as to what a merchant should do if he or she receives a counterfeit bill — and there are $50s and $20s going around, she said. Police handed out such bills during the seminar, pointing out that the bills feel slicker than true bills and colors often run or are different from the original version.

As a result of the seminars, some merchants will be putting up cameras, which could also catch internal fraud by employees. Other are putting up signs saying that IDs will be checked on all purchases using credit cards, Erskine said.

"Merchants must explain that it is for the protection of all their customers and in the customer's best interest to check his or her ID."

If a company is losing money due to fraud, the only way they can recover is to raise prices. That results in regular customers bearing the brunt of that increase, Erskine said.

"Too many merchants are afraid to ask for ID, but they should ask every single customer," Erskine said.

They should be leery if a person shows up with a single check, especially if it is already signed. Accepting third-party checks should also be a no-no, she said

Besides a driver's license, credible identification can include a passport, a military ID, a student ID as a second piece of identification and even an insurance card, she said.

Those checking ID cards should be sure to look at the expiration date, she said. People often remember such things as their Social Security number, but seldom know the expiration date on a piece of ID, she said.

Counterfeit bills a growing problem Police said they see counterfeit $20 bills quite frequently in La Grande, and some $5 bills are out there. At one of the seminars, they displayed several counterfeited $1 bills.

"Merchants should be aware of the possible habits of people who pass counterfeit bills. A lot of crooks are super nice and friendly. Some are fidgety," Erskine said.

Sometimes, the crooks will use large bills, such as a $50, to buy only a small amount of merchandise, pocketing legal change in the purchase.

Erskine advises that if merchants get a counterfeit bill, they should keep it, try to keep the person in the store while calling the police or trying to remember a description of the person if they do leave the store.

"Ninety percent of the time, the person handing you the fake bill is not the counterfeiter," she advised merchants.

A merchant should not try to pass a fake bill back into circulation if they recognize it is counterfeit, she said.

"It is a crime to pass it on," Erskine said.

A clerk should call the local police and/or the Secret Service (503-326-2162). She said Secret Service personnel "99 percent of the time can tell over the phone if a bill is counterfeit" if a clerk describes it.

Merchants should feel free to check with banks to see if those presenting checks have an account, if the amount of the check will be covered or if an account has been closed, Erskine said.

Guard against employee fraud She said business owners should not present employees with the opportunity to defraud the store.

"Business owners should lock up crucial information, somewhere you have access and know who else has access. Owners should go over the store's financial books often, sometimes at unexpected times if they have a bookkeeper."

Those buying surveillance cameras should check with police to make sure they are buying a system that is compatible with police equipment so police can review the film when needed, Erskine said.

But her main suggestion remains that merchants should always check ID on all customers presenting checks or credit cards.

"If every business does this, the customers will have no choice but to accept the practice," Erskine said.

The seminars also present information on what a person can do as an individual to prevent identity theft and what to do if you become a victim of such theft.