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Irma Stone knows bounced checks better than anyone in South Florida. The phlegmatic 37-year-old has reigned for more than thirteen years as queen of the Worthless Check Division, a little-known bureau in the Dade State Attorney's Office that tries to catch and prosecute habitual check cheats. But the Worthless Check Division has grown quiet of late. Stone was transferred a few months ago and now spends only a portion of her day supervising the office. The trained clerks who counsel victims of check fraud and help build cases against serial check bouncers have been reduced in number from seven to two. Last year the division pursued a total of 2210 check scams. During the first eight months of 1991, it handled only 394 such cases.
The drastic reduction in labor isn't due to a sudden surge of honesty among Dade's denizens. Check bouncers, called "evil" by the Florida Legislature in its last session, continue to rob county businesses of thousands of dollars each week. In fact, suggests Stone, their activities are probably on the rise due to a faltering regional economy. "We don't get too many yuppies bouncing checks for pizza," she explains. "These are people who need merchandise or cash or services, and will do whatever they have to do to get them." And the investigation of rubber checks has not been taken over by any other government agency. Local police continue to refer victims directly to State Attorney Janet Reno's office.
One year ago last week, citing the sorry state of Florida's budget, Reno's office quit processing and prosecuting bad-check cases involving fraud under $500. (The old minimum limit was $25.) The agency still sends a form letter to check bouncers in cases under $500, threatening transgressors with criminal prosecution if they don't pay up in seven days. But the letter is no longer backed up by force. In most instances no arrest warrant is issued, and no prosecution in fact takes place. The bureau's files, meanwhile, are growing stale; the majority of new reports on worthless checks under $500 aren't logged in, as they once were.
"It's had a huge effect on us little guys," says Michael Foreman, a Cutler Ridge auto mechanic. "Now we have to do something else to get our money, or else just eat the debt. In the old days I used the State Attorney's Office with great success half a dozen times. Now it's a joke. I've got a check for $300 pinned up on my wall right now, and I'll never be able to cash it."
Representatives of Dade retailers and financial institutions say the new worthless-check policy simply raises the irritation level in a legal process they've already given up on. Many banks have long depended on their own teams of investigators to clear up bad-check problems. "We have not been too successful over the years in getting anyone to prosecute people who write bad checks," says a Coconut Grove Bank vice president who asked not to be named. "It's an absolutely, utterly frustrating experience. By the time you walk out of the State Attorney's Office, you feel like you are the criminal. The paperwork is horrendous. A $25 bad check can wind up costing $500 in aggravation."
Most large grocery and department store chains now use collection agencies, private companies that work on a contingency basis chasing down bad-check writers and getting them to make good. Domino's Pizza, which uses a collection agency based in San Diego, no longer bothers with criminal prosecution for bad checks in Dade. "We have asked the State Attorney for help in the past," says Jim Martin, regional comptroller for the giant pizza chain. "But the problem is that most of our checks are low dollars. You don't get a lot of people ordering $500 worth of pizza. Even in the past, when the limit was $25, most of our bad checks were around $10 or $20."
Smaller merchants are turning to check-insurance companies, firms that guarantee the business owner payment on each and every check - for a price. Such companies usually work through the civil courts, where a successful lawsuit against a bad-check writer can net them treble damages plus attorney's fees. The trick, in most cases, is locating the check bouncer.
To safeguard against worthless checks, most store cashiers now take the time to note information from an in-state driver's license or other photo ID - including the check writer's height, weight, hair and eye color, and address. Bank cards, now used by many big grocery stores, enable a business to instantaneously verify and deduct grocery payments from a shopper's bank checking account. The burgeoning success of the plan has led many to predict the extinction of check writing by the turn of the century.
But as long as there are checks to be written, there will be people who kite them, and prosecution and law-enforcement officials concede that the year-old guidelines have resulted in new career opportunities for quick-witted criminals. "It has had a substantial impact on the consumer," says Det. Gordon Angus, a ten-year veteran of the Metro police Economic Crimes Unit. "We are finding a lot more people calling us who are very upset because they can't get the state attorney to deal with their crimes. Also, we see a lot of people getting out of violent crime and getting into white-collar crimes. Passing bad checks is the low end of financial crimes, but you have to start somewhere."
"Some knowledgeable thieves are going to feel they can fool around with checks under $500 and feel free from criminal prosecution - and they'll be right," admits Leonard Lewis, Worthless Check Division chief. "All of a sudden we have a loophole." Kristina Swartz, deputy chief of the state attorney's felony division, says she hopes the Worthless Check Division will soon be able to lower the prosecution limit to $150. But she isn't sure when.
Ernest Morrow, a 21-year veteran of the Dade debt-collection business, believes the cutbacks are a sound money-saving strategy that will help free up the criminal-court system for prosecution of more serious crimes. But they also represent a new temptation. "Probably a guy like me could really rip into the system at this point," says Morrow. "I could put $5000 in a bank account, then run around town and spend $30,000 at various places. Even if the merchant called the bank to verify there was money in the account, there would be. The same day I wrote the checks, I could go to the bank and withdraw the money and skip town. By the time they processed the check, I'd be long gone."
Cutler Ridge mechanic Michael Foreman has found a sure-fire method for eliminating check fraud, one he's sure other small businesses will soon follow: "I've quit accepting personal checks altogether," he says. "You give a bounced check to a collection agency, they want 50 percent. You can subscribe to a check-cashing clearing-house where they guarantee payment on all checks, but them guys want two, two-and-a-half percent on every check. I feel like sending out Guido the Late Notice, you know what I mean? A leg breaker."
Tom Weller, a South Dade lawyer and author of a recent essay titled "What to do With a Rubber Check," urges victims to avoid using force to clear up debts. "Illegal means of collecting bad checks are often portrayed on television or in the movies," he writes in the May 1990 Homestead-Florida City Chamber of Commerce newsletter. "Do not attempt them, for your encounter with the criminal justice system will be far more harsh than that of the drawer of the check.