What is check fraud?
You might think check fraud had gone the way of the dinosaur with the prevalence of debit cards and online/electronic transactions. But many consumers — and particularly, businesses — continue to rely upon old-school paper checks, creating opportunities for check fraud, intentional or otherwise.
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Check fraud is a serious crime, and in some circumstances is charged as a felony offense that carries a risk of jail time and/or large fines.
Check fraud is a type of forgery crime under Section 476 of the California Penal Code. Check fraud occurs when someone knowingly makes, writes, passes, possesses or attempts to make, write, pass, or possess a fake, altered, or forged check in order to obtain money, property, or services with fraudulent intent. The prosecution must prove each of these elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a check fraud conviction.
A few examples of check fraud are:
- Knowingly forging the name of the payor on a check and attempting to cash the check;
- Changing the amount of money on a check;
- Altering the routing number on a check;
- Paying for services with a check you know to be fake; and
- Using a printer or other equipment to create fake checks.
The following are common defenses to the crime of check fraud:
No fraudulent intent
Because check fraud requires actual intent, a defendant cannot be found guilty if he did not intend to make, write, pass, or possess a doctored check. For example, if someone receives and attempts to cash a check they did not know was forged, they are not guilty of check fraud because they lacked the required intent. Similarly, if someone makes a million dollar check out to themselves using someone else’s checkbook as a joke but never intended to cash the check, they are not guilty of check fraud because they did not seek to use the check to fraudulently obtain money.
This defense goes hand in hand with the fraudulent intent element of check fraud. If a person was given permission to make alterations to a check, they cannot be guilty of check fraud. For example, if a person’s grandmother tells them to sign her name to a check, they are not guilty of check fraud.
If you are not the person who made or forged the check and unknowingly tried to cash it believing it to be a valid check, you are not the person who should be charged with the crime of check fraud.
Prosecutors can charge check fraud as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the situation and the defendant’s criminal record. Prosecutors must charge the defendant with a misdemeanor if:
1) The check is for $950 or less; and
2) The defendant did not also commit identity theft under section 530.5 of the California Penal Code.
Misdemeanor check fraud carries the following penalties:
- Up to one year in a county jail, and
- A maximum $1,000 fine.
In contrast, felony check fraud carries the following penalties:
- 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and
- A maximum $10,000 fine.