Criminal or Victim?

Beware, scammers target the uninformed

By Lou Jasikoff and John DiLiberto

A February 19th hearing in Magistrate Rick Cronauer’s courtroom drove home the fact that in increasingly difficult times the scam artists come out in numbers, often preying on the most vulnerable and uninformed amongst us.

In the case of Maureen Ward, the 63-year-old South View Manor resident is facing two charges under Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Title 18, Crimes and Offenses, being brought by a local community credit union, Choice One FCU, located at 101 Hazle Street:

1. Theft by Deception. A person is guilty of theft if he intentionally obtains or withholds property of another by deception. A person deceives if he intentionally prevents another from acquiring information which would affect his judgment of a transaction.

2. Bad Checks. A person commits an offense if he issues or passes a check or similar sight order for the payment of money, knowing that it will not be honored by the drawee.

The whole matter began when Ms. Ward received a check in the amount of $1,995.24 from GRT Net Services of Gresham, Oregon to perform “mystery shopping” work. Even though Ms. Ward had participated in such retail assessment before, she wanted to first ensure that the check was legitimate. According to Ms. Ward, she brought the GRT check along with the accompanying paperwork into Choice One, asked the staff to confirm its validity, and was informed by the institution that they would put a “hold” on the check until it cleared.

Upon the check’s clearing, Ms. Ward was to send $1,689 back to who she thought was GRT Net Services, which claims to have done. Two days later, the check was returned to Choice One marked “Refer to Maker,” suggesting a fraudulent transaction. Since the funds were not transferred by the issuing bank, US Bank, to Choice One the credit union is demanding them from Ms. Ward. The Wilkes-Barre Senior is now facing a daunting repayment challenge for someone trying to make ends meet while living off of a monthly Social Security check of $752.

Upon inquiry to Choice One, the Gazette was directed to President Thomas Smith and asked him whether prosecution was really merited in this case or if some other arrangement could be made, since the incident involved obvious fraud on the part of the check sender, who has yet to be identified. Clearly, Maureen Ward did not purposely deceive, and had actually sought the credit union’s counsel prior to depositing the check. The Gazette further inquired of Mr. Smith if his institution performed the due diligence that perhaps should have been executed when a customer expresses concern about a questionable financial instrument. Didn’t Choice One, too bear some culpability in this matter? “The Credit Union just wants its money back,” was Smith’s reply.

Complicating the events even further are the policies of the bank upon which the check was drawn, US Bank. The Gazette was able to track down the owner of GRT Net Services, Rick Fletcher, and he, too claimed to be a victim of the perpetrated fraud. According to Fletcher, once he realized checks were being drawn on his account which were not authorized by him, he promptly took advantage of US Bank’s “SinglePoint Positive Pay” program. This program allowed Mr. Fletcher to review his account in the morning and designate any seemingly fraudulent check he did not knowingly authorize to be returned to the institution expecting a funds transfer marked “Refer to Maker.” In speaking with US Bank’s public relations department, the Gazette questioned why, since US Bank was aware that fraud was being reported on this account, did they fail to close it. Now, had anyone from Choice One FCU called on this account — which they admittedly did not — they would have been told the account was active and in good standing as opposed to being closed, or was at the very least being monitored for fraud.

The Gazette received on February 20th the following clarification of US Bank’s SinglePoint Positive Pay program from Vice President of Corporate Public Relations for U.S. Bancorp, Nicole Garrison-Sprenger:

“Once we learned of the fraud, we strongly advised our customer to close his account. The customer instead opted to keep the account open and signed up for SinglePoint Positive Pay. U.S. Bank’s SinglePoint Positive Pay gives customers the tools to detect potential fraud. The product relies on the customer setting certain parameters that give the bank direction on what checks should be paid and what checks should not be paid. In this case, the check in question was flagged and ultimately not paid based on the parameters set by our customer.”

At the time of our March printing, the Independent Gazette was still awaiting clarification from the President of Choice One, Thomas Smith, City Spokesperson Drew McLaughlin, and Wilkes-Barre City Patrolman Robert Collins regarding two matters. Ms. Ward has asserted that Patrolman Collins was somewhat heavy-handed when confronting her at her Monroe Street residence in the Fall of 2012 and that he demanded that she hand over the money from the check in question. “I felt it was more than just the money, but that he had a personal interest in this,” stated Ward.” ‘You have to come up with the money, or else I am going to handcuff you and parade you through the building,’ ” she claimed to have been threatened by Patrolman Collins. Attempts to reach Collins for his account of the exchange with Ward were not successful.

The Gazette is also trying to ascertain how Patrolman Collins was assigned the case to begin with. Was it happenstance, or was Collins specifically requested by someone at the credit union to assume charge of this particular case? Is it personal, as Ms. Ward has suggested, or just the luck of the draw that had Patrolman Collins assigned to investigate and prosecute? Numerous calls to Choice One’s President seeking clarification of Collins’ involvement as well as to City Spokesperson Drew McLaughlin seeking explanation of police protocol in distributing cases garnered no response.

The Gazette is hoping that cooler heads prevail before the next scheduled hearing in May. This is an obvious fraud case and blame can be cast in many directions. Does Choice One or US Bank really desire this type of publicity? Let’s hope not, and let’s hope that they figure out what they can do to remedy costly complications they could have averted in the first place. In the meantime, if you wish to help Ms. Ward to stay out of jail, donations are being accepted by Wilkes-Barre Crime Watch, 570-208-8900 and wbcrimewatch1@gmail.com and by the Wilkes-Barre Taxpayers Association, 570-825-2901 and wbctpa@gmail.com

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