Check scam uses homeless people to do the dirty work

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COLUMBIA - The Columbia Police Department is investigating a check scam in which the culprits are bribing homeless people to front the crime.

Detective Steve Wilmoth, head of the investigation, said a group from out of town has been stealing local business checks to get bank routing information and authorized signatures.

The group counterfeits these stolen checks and goes to Kansas City or St. Louis to recruit homeless people with valid identification. The group will put the homeless person's name on the checks, and have the homeless person go in to cash the check.

"They are easy targets," Wilmoth said. "They're hard up for money and they're willing to do what ever they can for 50 or 100 dollars and a hot meal."

The group bribes homeless people to participate by offering money, places to stay, and food.

Most of the checks cashed are payroll checks, so the scam targets local businesses. Wilmoth said he has also seen some personal checks cashed that he believes are also in connection to the scam.

"Losses from the scam have totaled around $60,000 in Columbia," Wilmoth said.

Reggie Wilhite, vice president of operations and security for Boone County National Bank, said her bank has suffered.

"It took us a bit to catch on to their scheme, but I think we've got some plans in place now that will make it not as easy and make us not as much of a target in the future," Wilhite said.

She said the bank is looking at ways to make its check cashing policies stricter to better protect customers.

Wilmoth said he has been in contact with the United States Postal Inspection Office, which told him this is a national scam.

A media release from the Columbia Police Department outlined the following guidelines for businesses and banks to follow to protect themselves:

  • Businesses should assure mailboxes are empty prior to end of the business day.
  • Businesses can use a P.O. Box to receive incoming checks.
  • Businesses can use anti-phishing devices to protect mail from being stolen from the mailbox.
  • Banks need to be suspicious of local checks being cashed locally by persons outside of Boone County.