GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Eighty-nine-year-old Barbara Rutcoskey didn’t know what happened to her checkbook.
“I thought I’d mislaid it,” she told Target 8 investigators.
She spent a couple of months trying to find it. Meanwhile, money was flying out of her bank account.
It turns out that a handyman she hired to work on her deck had walked into her kitchen and stolen her checkbook. He forged her signature on checks and cleaned out her account of $6,200. She wasn’t aware of it until she got a letter from her bank.
“I was overdrawn and only had $54 in the checking account,” she said.
The Kent County Sheriff’s Department easily caught the thief, Herman Henry Piper III. He admitted forging checks from Rutcoskey’s account to pay his bills. Meanwhile, she was having trouble paying her own.
“I can’t pay them the full amount, otherwise I can’t buy pills or I can’t buy groceries,” she told Target 8 investigators.
A woman who prided herself on paying her bills on time quickly found herself hounded by bill collectors.
“I don’t know if you know how that can affect a person,” she said. “It did affect me. My health went down.”
Her anxiety rose when she tried to get the bank to cover the loss. It’s a bank’s legal responsibility.
“The general rule is when a forged check is presented to the bank, the bank is liable if they cash it,” GVSU finance professor Greg Dimkoff explained.
The logic is that the bank makes every customer sign a signature card when opening an account for comparison to incoming checks to make sure they are legitimate.
In practice, however, Dimkoff says, “they never check cards. I’ve never seen a bank check a card.”
When Rutcoskey asked Fifth Third Bank to reimburse her account, it refused. It said she waited too long to report the loss. The bank requires customers notify it of a forgery within 30 days of the end of the bank statement period.
Dimkoff called it “the only loophole” that the law gives banks, based on the idea that customers should be responsible and report problems promptly.
But in Rutcoskey’s case, she thought she had misplaced her checkbook, was in the hospital part of the time and somehow missed the forged checks on her monthly bank statements.
Regardless, Fifth Third told her she was out of luck.
“The bank blames me because I didn’t report it soon enough but then they just cashed all those checks for this guy,” she said.
She called Target 8 investigators for help. Target 8 reached out to the bank and got a quick response. The bank had changed its mind. A spokesperson said it regarded Rutcoskey’s hospital stay as enough “new information” to regard her as eligible for reimbursement. The bank put $6,200 back in her account.
That was a huge relief for Rutcoskey, who started catching up on all her overdue bills.
“I’ve been paying and paying and paying,” she said. “Getting everybody paid up.
“I don’t want this to happen to anybody else because it really made a mess of me,” she added.
That’s something Kent County Circuit Judge Curt Benson was aware of when he got the thief, Piper, in front of him this month.
“She put her trust in you,” he told the crooked handyman. “And she’s 89 years old and just by virtue of her age, that makes her quite vulnerable.”
Benson called the theft “really disturbing,” put Piper on probation for three years and ordered him to pay back the money.
Rutcoskey’s story is evidence of why people should check their bank statements every month. There are deadlines for reporting theft from your account, whether you still bank with paper or online.
“I think the average person should at least look at their statement and look at the checks and make sure it’s OK,” Dimkoff said.
Even though the use of paper checks has declined, forgery still costs over $700 million a year nationwide, according to Federal Reserve numbers. Overall payment fraud for checks, electronic banking and credit cards nets crooks over $8 billion annually.