Check Fraud

Accusations of check fraud should be addressed as soon as possible. If convicted, you could face misdemeanor or felony consequences, which include thousands in fines and time in jail or prison. Having any type of criminal record would have long-term impacts on your future.

Without the advice of an expert, reality can seem daunting. It’s highly suggested you find the legal help necessary to maintain control of your future. One of the best things you can do now is to find a criminal defense lawyer who can help de-escalate and counter the charges.

The outline below conveniently provides a more in-depth look into check fraud and how the law characterizes it.

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Check Fraud Definition

California defines check fraud under PC 476. This law states it’s a crime to alter, write, possess, pass, or use a fake or counterfeit check, someone else’s personal checks, or fraudulent checks. Regardless of whether you were able to gain something valuable or make multiple purchases, the attempt to do so is illegal.

Specific illustrations of this crime are:

Passing a counterfeit check to make a large purchase;

In-store purchases no longer require customers to write-out the check. A blank one can be run through the check reader to make a purchase all the same.

Fake, false, and counterfeit checks might look legitimate at first glance. However, upon closer scrutiny, the account information or payee can turn out to be fictional.

Altering the amount of a check for a larger cash withdrawal.

If the alteration looked genuine, it’s usually indicative of one’s actual intent to defraud the payee.

To alter a check would be to change the dollar amount, routing number, and/or date on it. If the initial financial document has been modified from its original version, that is illegal.

Forging another person’s signature on a check;

Many check fraud cases involve defendants allegedly forging another individual’s signature. This can lead to the closely related offense of forgery under PC 470.

Associated Charges

It’s not unheard of for the following crimes to be charged together because they are all so closely related.

Penal Code 470, Forgery;

Signing another individual’s name or faking their handwriting is considered forgery. Altering, falsifying, or presenting fraudulent legal documents is also regarded as a forgery.

Penal Code 476a, Bad Checks;

Continually using checks that you know will not clear with the bank and doing so to commit fraud is a criminal act.

Penal Code 530.5(e), Mail Theft;

You commit this crime if you steal, remove, destroy, hide, or unlawfully possess any mail that does not belong you to. This law does not focus on money or the value of what was taken. It prioritizes the actual act of taking another person’s postal notes without the authorization to do so.

Penal Code 530.5, Identity Theft;

It’s illegal to take another individual’s personal information and use it in an unauthorized, unlawful, or fraudulent way.

Getting accused of one of these offenses is more than enough to deal with. If you are facing multiple charges, a criminal defense lawyer could definitely help. Check fraud is serious enough on its own. Tacking on using bad checks that were stolen in the mail, forging signatures, and thus committing identity theft is more than any one person can handle.

Similar Offenses

Penal Code 484(a), Petty Theft;

It’s against the law to steal someone else’s things or services. When the item or services that were stolen are valued at or under nine-hundred-fifty dollars it’s referred to as petty theft.

Penal Code 487, Grand Theft;

When the item(s) or services that were taken are valued at more than nine-hundred-fifty dollars, it’s regarded as grand theft.

Penal Code 496(a), Receiving Stolen Property;

This law makes it a crime to knowingly receive, possess, or keep the property you know has been stolen.

How Does the Prosecution Prove it?

Being convicted of check fraud means the elements of the crime were established. It’s up to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt these four facts or elements took place:

Elements of the crime

  • The defendant attempted or actually used, made, passed, or possessed an altered, faked, or falsified check, bill, or legal note in order to gain financial or material benefit;

  • They were fully aware the document was false or illegally changed;

  • They used or attempted to use the fake or altered check with the intention to defraud; AND

  • When it was in their possession, the defendant had fully intended on passing it on as a real, genuine check.

Moreover, there are other details taken into account when considering these charges. Fraud cases carry a stigma that only grows depending on how many people were affected and how much was technically stolen. This law can go hand in hand with identity theft and forgery.

The prosecution has the discretion to pursue any offense they feel fits the crime(s) the defendant allegedly committed.

Getting Charged

If you’re wondering who can be charged with check fraud as described in PC 476, continue reading. These examples illustrate who can be convicted of breaking this law.

Example 1:

Nina found her neighbor’s package in her mailbox. Instead of giving it to the rightful owner, she opened it. A box of personal bank checks was inside. Nina used the checks to make multiple purchases at Walmart, Target, and other grocery and retail stores. She made sure to go just outside her county and only went into stores that didn’t require checks to be written out.

Nina could be charged with multiple offenses in this specific situation. Opening another individual’s mail is illegal under penal code 530.5(e), mail theft. This kind of offense is commonly associated with fraud crimes. There are several facts of the crime that she is guilty of:

She opened her neighbor's mail, knowing it wasn’t hers to open.

Realizing it was a checkbook, she deliberately took it.

To avoid getting caught using the checks, she intentionally shopped outside of her own living radius.

All these factors spell out her willful intent to commit check fraud.

Example 2:

Roger figured out a way of creating believable counterfeit checks. When the first one was able to pass the scrutiny of the cashier, he chose to make more. These checks were connected to a valid bank account. However, Roger was not the rightful account holder, nor was he authorized to use or copy these checks.

Instead of shopping around his normal stomping grounds, he passed the checks at smaller venues he rarely used.

His friend Lou found out and wanted to take part. Roger made more copies and distributed some of the counterfeit checks to his friend.

Roger could be charged with PC 476, check fraud. Not only did he use invalid checks in a fraudulent way, but he also made multiple copies. Then, he chose to share those counterfeit checks with his friend. Also, if Roger attained the original check by illegal means, he could face further theft charges. 

If Lou used any of the checks, he would also be charged with check fraud. If Lou knew the checks were stolen and accepted them anyway, he could be facing problems under PC 496(a), receiving stolen property.

The prosecution would have no problem establishing the elements of this crime because:

Roger purposely copied someone else’s checks with the intention to use them in a fraudulent way.

He carefully made them look as genuine as possible to pass them off as real.

Lou knew the checks were counterfeit but knowingly asked, accepted, and used them.

Both parties could face felonious punishments if their fraudulent actions resulted in over a grand of financial loss.

Strong Legal Defense

These allegations can seem impossible to argue. Don’t let that stop you from fighting for your freedom. Tough, effective legal representation is not difficult to find when you know where to look. An aggressive criminal defense attorney will know how to counter such recriminations.

The following questions illustrate only some of the common defenses that have been successfully presented on behalf of the accused. It also showcases who cannot be charged with PC 476, check fraud.

Is this a case of mistaken identity?

Someone gave you an altered, forged, or fictitious check. You didn’t know it was fake and attempt to cash it. The bank teller reports you for fraud and you are arrested.

If you were not aware the check was a fake and had zero intention of committing fraud you are not guilty. Not only did you lack the knowledge and criminal intent, you reasonably believed this check was genuine.

This would be a classic case of mistaken identity because you are not the guilty party who illegally altered the check. In the end, it could be argued you were the victim as well.

Was there criminal intent?

You are not guilty of check fraud if you had no intention to commit fraud in the first place. For instance, you write out fake checks to yourself and your children while playing a game. You never had any intention of using, passing or cashing them.

How about if those fake checks you wrote out for your children are returned to your wallet and you accidentally use them at the store without realizing it. In either case, there was a lack of intent, therefore you would not be charged for this offense.

Is there sufficient evidence?

Now, what if you possessed checks you knew were forgeries or counterfeit? To be prosecuted under this offense, you don’t have to use the checks. In fact, possessing them is enough to place you under lawful scrutiny.

However, if you have no intent to use them in a fraudulent manner and you were not the culprit that made the fake checks, simply having them should not be sufficient evidence to convict you of check fraud.

Was authorization given?

Consent to alter or sign a check that belongs to someone else does not mean you committed check fraud. If the authorized person of the check gave you specific permission to write it out, change the dollar amount, or sign their name you are not guilty of committing this crime.

What about if you use your spouse’s checks? In this case, if consent was given you are not guilty of fraud.

Penalties

Check fraud is known as a wobbler in California. This means the offense can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. If the value of the check was nine-hundred-fifty dollars or less, it would most likely result in a misdemeanor. The prosecution could pursue felony consequences in cases where identity theft was a factor.

Misdemeanor;

Up to one thousand dollars in fines, and

A potential one-year county jail sentence.

Felony;

Possibly probation for up to 3 years, and

Up to one year the county jail, OR

Maximum fines of ten thousand dollars, and/or

16 months, 2, or 3-year county jail sentence.

Additional Consequences

There is also the likelihood of having to pay full restitution to any possible victims of your fraud. You might have the opportunity to enter a check diversion program to avoid jail time. If this is a viable option for you, it means the charges could potentially get dismissed. First, you would have to pay full restitution back to the victim(s) and you must successfully complete the program.

California Penal Code section 1203.4, Expungement

Since the defendant does not have to spend any time in a state or federal prison (as pertaining to the misdemeanor penalties of check fraud), they could be eligible for expungement. Getting convicted of a crime at any level would interrupt your job, rental, education, or housing opportunities.

In California, if you have misdemeanors, you might be able to qualify for expungement. Essentially, if found eligible, the conviction(s) will be removed from your criminal record.

There is a list of criteria that must be met and a three-step process for the expungement to work. If you want help with this process or need more information, we can help. You can contact us here for more details.

Penalties for Associated and Similar Offenses

Multiple charges mean costly disciplinary action. Many of these statutes are considered crimes of low moral turpitude. Facing more than one and actually being convicted of multiple counts will be a significant burden on the rest of your life. Immigration status, employment goals, and academic plans are only some of the freedoms that will be adversely affected by a criminal record. 

Here is a list of the sentencing and financial damages that result from getting convicted of a California fraud crime.

Penal Code 470, Forgery;

Misdemeanor;

Informal (summary) probation,

Fines of up to one thousand dollars, and/or

Up to one-year county jail sentence.

Felony;

Summary or felony probation,

Up to ten thousand dollars in fines, and/or

16 months, 2, or 3 years served in the county jail.

Penal Code 476a, Bad Checks;

Misdemeanor;

Up to one thousand dollars in fines, and/or

A potential one-year county jail sentence.

Felony;

Fines as high as ten thousand dollars, and/or

16 months, 2, or 3 years spent in a state prison.

Penal Code 530.5(e), Mail Theft;

Misdemeanor;

Summary probation,

Fines of up to one thousand dollars, and/or

Up to one year in the county jail.

Penal Code 530.5, Identity Theft;

Misdemeanor;

Fines of up to one thousand dollars, and

Up to one year in the county jail.

Felony;

Up to ten thousand dollars in fines, and

A possible three-year county jail sentence.

Enhanced Penalties;

If convicted on the federal level, you face:

Steeper fines, and

Potentially as much as thirty years in a federal prison.

Penal Code 484(a), Petty Theft;

Misdemeanor;

Maximum fines of one thousand dollars, and/or

Up to six months in the county jail.

Penal Code 487, Grand Theft;

Misdemeanor;

Up to one year in the county jail.

Felony:

Formal probation, and

Up to one year in the county jail; OR

A possible 16 months, 2, or 3-year county jail sentence.

Penal Code 496(a), Receiving Stolen Property;

Misdemeanor;

Informal (misdemeanor) probation,

Up to one thousand dollars in fines, and/or

A possible county jail sentence of up to six months.

Felony;

Formal probation,

Fines of up to ten thousand dollars, and/or

16 months, 2, or 3 years in the county jail.

Further financial repercussions might also result from being convicted of any of the offenses mentioned above. You could face additional restitution fines to the alleged victims of the crime. If the crime you committed involved one-hundred-thousand dollars or more, you may face even harsher consequences. The outcome depends upon what you did and exactly how much money or services were defrauded.

Let Us Help

California fraud convictions place a huge stain on your record, one that could take years to overcome. Making a mistake is one thing. Placing your future and freedom on the line is another.

Get the real help you need to make a difference in your case. Call the Law Offices of Anna R. Yum for professional legal advice.

If you or someone you know is facing allegations of check fraud, identity theft, or any other criminal offense, contact our San Diego criminal lawyer at 619-233-4433 to discuss your next steps.

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