ChequeCorbis

The Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit (DCPCU) has dismantled what is believed to be one of the UK's biggest counterfeit cheque crime groups following a major operation in Yorkshire and Scotland.

Detectives had been investigating the counterfeiting network for months and suspect they could have been making up to £50,000 a week using forged cheques, potentially netting up to £10 million in total.

Last Wednesday and Thursday morning more than 60 officers from the DCPCU, City of London Police and West Yorkshire Police arrested five men and two women, all in their 30s. They were questioned in West Yorkshire police stations and later released on bail. Around 100 chequebooks were seized, each containing up to 50 cheques, equating to more than £5 million worth of fraud.

Numerous printers and printing materials that could be used to forge cheques, and a sizeable quantity of crack cocaine and heroin, were also found in 22 addresses and a vehicle that were searched.

Cheque fraud has become more organised as usage goes down
Cheque usage has gone down in recent years but there are still over 2.7 million cheque transactions a day. Although the most recent figures show that cheque fraud is rising, more than 90% of all fraudulent cheques are detected when they go through the cheque clearing process.

While fewer cheques are being written and more high value payments are being settled electronically, cheque fraudsters has become more sophisticated. Advances in computer and printing technology, coupled with the relatively low cost of equipment, mean that fraudsters can now target almost any cheque.

Organised crime gangs continue to steal customer cheques to use as templates, and are also targeting company chequebooks. But their latest ruse is to use higher quality printers, paper and ink bought on the internet to produce counterfeit cheques that are much more difficult to detect. This, coupled with the fact that many people are less aware of how to handle cheques safely, is creating increasingly fertile ground for fraudsters.

The Head of DCPCU, DCI Dave Carter, said: "A decline in counterfeit cheque fraud ironically left a chink in the door, with criminals now combining old techniques with the specialist purchasing powers of the internet to really cash in on a general lack of public awareness of cheque security. But these arrests send out a strong message across the UK to members of the public and criminals. The DCPCU is alive to the threat of counterfeit cheques, we take it very seriously, and will travel far and wide in pursuit of those we believe are responsible."

The DCPCU, which is a specialist police unit sponsored by the banks to investigate serious and organised payment fraud, is working with the industry to stamp out organised card and cheque fraud across the UK. The unit comprises officers from the City of London and Metropolitan police forces working alongside bank investigators and case support staff.

Banks such as RBS have issued this advice for consumers and small businesses:

Ordering, receiving and storing cheques
• You should limit your cheque book orders to avoid holding too large a stock of cheques, as their design and layout may change regularly to keep up to date with evolving technologies.
• If you haven't received cheque books that you've been expecting, contact the bank to verify that they have been dispatched.
• When you receive a supply of new cheques, check through the books to make sure that no cheques have been removed en route.
• Always keep cheques in a secure place separate from the bank mandate.
• Never leave cheques lying around unattended in public areas.

Writing cheques
• Use cheques in serial number order, making sure that all cheques remain in the book and that none are removed from the middle or back.
• Begin writing or printing at the very left of the cheque and use reasonably large size writing or printing font.
• When issuing a cheque to a large organisation such as HM Revenue & Customs or a bank, do not make the cheque payable simply to that organisation. Add further details on the payee line, for example 'HM Revenue & Customs re. JJ Jones Acc Ref 1234567'.
• Draw a line through unused space on a cheque, so that unauthorised people cannot add extra details.
• Don't leave large spaces between words and put a line through the space not used after the words in each line.
• Don't leave a space between the £ sign and the amount inserted in the figures box, and put a line through any spaces not used after the numbers.
• Always account for spoiled cheques and destroy them.
• Avoid abbreviating the payee name.

Sending cheques
• When sending a cheque by post, make sure that your envelope doesn't advertise the contents.
• Avoid using window envelopes when posting cheques, this makes it an easier target for fraudsters
• Set up a BACs / Bankline or Online payment to pay regular suppliers and Government bodies e.g. HMRC
• Consider sending high value cheques via secure mail e.g. Recorded / Registered Delivery