A new breed of counterfeiters emerges|
By CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
Register Staff Reporter
Catching a guy's eyes and casting a quick smile had seemed harmless enough to 21-year-old Angela Barnett of Daphne as throngs of clean-cut and sharp-dressed college guys passed her jewelry kiosk at the Bel Air Mall.
When one charmer didn't just pass by, but stopped, talked, then wined and dined her, Ms. Barnett found herself being asked to pass on a copy of her paycheck.
After printing out poster-size color photos of himself at Office Max to impress a girlfriend, it seemed so simple to 23-year-old Jermayne Doolittle of Prichard to slap a $20 bill onto the copier. The print came out so well that he passed a couple along to employees at local fast-food restaurants.
Ms. Barnett and Doolittle didn't realize that their actions would thrust them into South Alabama's burgeoning underworld of counterfeiting, a society that has drastically added methods and members.
Crime news and statistics
Instead of painstaking professionals running presses that print out millions of bogus dollars, today's counterfeiting players and kingpins often are students using high-quality computers and printers to photocopy cash, said Gail Linkins, resident agent in charge of the Mobile office of the U.S. Secret Service.
"We are seeing more younger people, high school and college levels," said Ms. Linkins, whose office combats counterfeiters.
These modern-age counterfeiters may know little more than how to push "start" on a copier or click "print" on a computer screen. But their seemingly harmless pushes and clicks have printed out fake checks to exchange for real cash and one-sided dollar bills to hand over when asking for change. The percentage of people arrested nationwide who used computers when counterfeiting jumped from 2 percent in 1995 to 73 percent in 1999, the Secret Service said.
Striking all levels
This national problem has struck all socioeconomic levels:
When a prostitute in New Jersey was stiffed with a fake $100 bill, it led to the breakup of a $1.2 million counterfeiting ring at Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos.
A 46-year-old father and a 17-year-old daughter in Michigan printed fake $100 and $50 bills for a $2,800 spending spree.
Recently, Jonathan Brian Webb of Crossville and Cheryl Broadnax of Gadsden were arrested while shopping at the Riviera Centre and accused of using fake checks.
"They run the gamut," James Mackin, a national Secret Service spokesman, said of modern counterfeiters. "Those who come from very little means to those who are very affluent." Some new counterfeiters don't always know the consequences of their actions - payback of the fake money, fines, federal prison sentences and the title of convicted felon. But other counterfeiters view it as a safer and more profitable enterprise than drug dealing.
"As far as the jail risk versus the money," said George Gaines, who spent 10 months in prison for his involvement in the same counterfeiting ring as Ms. Barnett. "It's very attractive."
The government has tried to thwart counterfeiting's growth through several agencies. The Secret Service - which was chasing counterfeiters long before it began protecting politicians - plans to increase its work force by 20 percent nationwide, partly to field all the new counterfeiting cases. Currency with sophisticated watermarks and new designs also can prove more difficult to duplicate. And the government has worked with copier and printer companies to add concealed codes that investigators can use to trace to a counterfeit check or bill's source.
Despite these efforts, counterfeiters continue to keep the government scrambling. In Mobile alone, Ms. Linkins said, the amount of counterfeit cash agents know is being "passed" or given to the public without the recipients realizing it is fake is about $4,000 a week - double from what it was five years ago.
Across the nation, the Secret Service says, counterfeiters passed $39.1 million in fake bills in 1999. The Secret Service seized an additional $13.6 million in fake bills when counterfeiters were arrested that year. Attempted check fraud in 1997 exceeded $1 billion while actual dollar losses were $487 million, according to the American Banker Association's most recent Fraud Survey Report.
In Angela Barnett's case, Michael Lambert, a student at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, started to lure people into his counterfeiting scheme by "being winsome and talking women into doing something they would not otherwise do," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Moore.
Court testimony revealed that Lambert, who Moore characterized as a "recruiter" for the scam, was hanging out at the Bel Air Mall with his friend from Alabama A&M, Nwoye Nwakibie Bowens, when he began to flirt with Barnett, said Ms. Barnett's attorney, Richard Shields.
They took Ms. Barnett out and introduced her to Clarence King, a friend from Oakwood College in Huntsville. After Ms. Barnett spent more time with the group, they began to drop hints about their involvement in counterfeiting and asked her if they could copy her paycheck - a request that Ms. Barnett denied, Moore said. But court documents state that Ms. Barnett told Lambert and King that she knew of a bank teller who might be willing to cash counterfeit checks for them.
Enter Tara Wicker.
The deal sounded promising to Ms. Wicker who was struggling to balance her course work at the University of South Alabama with her job as a teller at Daphne's SouthTrust Bank, according to her attorney, William Kimbrough.
Ms. Wicker eventually agreed to photocopy a commercial check that they could duplicate on a laptop computer. She also agreed that for a $1,000 per check charge, she would cash checks brought to her at the bank, according to court documents.
The counterfeiting scheme was in place. King scanned copies of fake checks, altered them on his laptop computer and printed them out on a laser printer, said Moore. Bowens, and Gaines, another friend from A&M, then cashed the checks at SouthTrust Bank for a $300- to $400-per- check cut.
Between March and April 1999, an indictment charges, all six scammers together took in more than $20,000 from fake checks cashed at the SouthTrust branch. Bowens brought four checks and Gaines brought one check for Tara Wicker to cash. Ms. Barnett did not cash any checks, Moore said, but she brought Ms. Wicker her cut of cash for accepting the fake checks and drove Bowens to cash the checks.
The operation began to break down when a Daphne police officer, having seen Ms. Barnett at the bank, confronted her, Shields said. She confessed. Ms. Wicker in turn confessed to her boss at SouthTrust and the operation soon unraveled, according to court documents.
Most get prison time
The government brought charges of conspiracy to commit check fraud against all six. Five of the six members of the ring pleaded guilty; King did not. The five testified during King's December trial, in which a jury found him guilty. King's attorney, Richard Alexander, said his client would not be able to comment because he is likely to appeal the conviction. For crimes that seemed relatively easy - a simple click of a computer mouse and a forged signature on the back of a check - most of them received prison time.
In March, a U.S. District Court judge will sentence King. He could spend up to five years in prison, though it is more likely he will serve 21 to 30 months, Moore said. Bowens, who now is being held in the Mobile County Metro Jail, will serve three years in federal prison. Lambert will spend nearly two years in prison. And Gaines just wrapped up his 10-month federal term.
Sentences for the ring's women were less severe. Barnett received pretrial diversion, which means that her conviction could be dropped if she does not run into any trouble for 18 months. Wicker spent 30 days in a corrections center and remains under house arrest.
All six people have to pay back the money they received through counterfeit checks.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Moore characterized this counterfeiting case as "fairly sophisticated" compared to many he has seen in South Alabama. Even so, a guilty finding or plea in a less-sophisticated counterfeiting case leaves the fake-cash criminals labeled as convicted felons for life.
Mark of a felon
In Doolittle's case, passing two fake bills for an orange juice at McDonald's and a meal at Hardee's landed him one night in prison, nearly three years on probation, and the mark of "convicted felon."
"I knew it was serious because it was state money," he said during a recent Register interview. "But I didn't know how serious it was."
The self-described flashy dresser who "toned it down" for his interview by wearing glinty diamond studs, a thick silver chain with a heavy dangling crucifix and Nike Air Max sneakers, said how he had slipped a $20 into the color copier at Office Max two years ago.
"My luck it came out perfect," he said as he slouched on a red bench in front of a Food Tiger supermarket in Prichard. "Only thing about it was it was one-sided."
He said he thought if he and his partner in a disc jockey business flashed around what looked like stacks of cash in front of potential club owners, "it would make like we were living large" and bring them more work than his usual gig playing rhythm and bass beats as DJ Wayne D at Skateworld on Moffett Road.
No mandatory sentence
Doolittle said he would never sell drugs. Counterfeiting, Doolittle and Gaines explained, can be a safer and faster way to make money. It provides fast cash without the penalty of the mandatory minimum prison sentences that are handed out for drug dealing.
"You can make up a check for $25,000 and only get 20 months for it," Gaines said.
In many cases, counterfeiters are involved in drug selling and can be sentenced for both offenses, said Secret Service spokesman Mackin. The Secret Service, meanwhile, is working with the U.S. Sentencing Commission to increase the sentencing guidelines for counterfeiting offenses alone, he said.
Gaines, who is finishing his engineering degree at A&M, said he wouldn't necessarily regret his counterfeiting conviction as much if it weren't for his family. His experience wouldn't have been so bad, he said, "If I had been by myself, if it hadn't been me, my wife and daughters."