Many police officers work in smaller sized agencies that can’t necessarily afford a full time evidence technician. That likely means that when you catch a case with an array of evidence, you’re going to be the one spending a lot of time at a desk deciding what kind of packaging is appropriate for each different type of item. What you may not be aware of is that your decisions have to satisfy not only your supervision, and Chief, but also your Prosecutor’s Office, and the Court with jurisdiction. If you fall short, one of these parties will surely let you know, and it means the dismissal of your case, most likely.
Much of the items that agencies spend a great deal of time educating their line staff on is packaging of drugs, paraphernalia, firearms, and in some agencies, alcohol containers.
Knowing how to handle these items for evidentiary purposes will help you about 40 percent of the time. But what about the other 60? The other 60 typically belongs to a “hodge-podge” of items ranging from blunt objects, to spray paint cans, and everything in between.
A few of those items are counterfeit currency, counterfeit or real checks, and other financial instruments, such as bonds, certificates of deposit, statements of stock and investment funds, and so on.
Being a police officer today is not all nose-to-the-grind-stone, taking back street corners, and capturing dope. Now there are criminal gangs that used to break into houses, and businesses, and are now breaking into people’s bank accounts online and stealing money, taking credit cards, and duplicating the card information on the magnetic stripes of gift cards that have been stolen from a grocery store. They’re conducting fraudulent activity in someone else’s name to retrieve private student loans, obtain credit falsely, and a host of other financial transactions. Further, we have criminals abroad who are bilking billions every year from our most vulnerable adults, sending the victims to the poor house, all while sitting scot-free overseas.
So far the FBI, US Secret Service, and US Postal Inspection Service have been great at spearheading efforts to stop much of these crimes, but the fact is that more and more people are losing jobs overseas, and they are taking skills they learned at white collar jobs, and applying them to criminal enterprises that victimize people in your community. And while it’s nice to rely on our federal partners, your local agency begins to lose its standing in the community when these bad guys begin acting, and the solution to the problem is handing over everything, sight unseen, to a much bigger agency that will likely not ever contact the victim.
While we can’t chase bad guys outside the country, or even outside our local boundaries, we can develop the call we take regarding fraud, and ensure we’ve documented each item well, stored it with the least amount of intrusion, aiming for none at all, and conducted some cursory searches into the data leading back to the suspect.
Developing fraud calls into cases is a much bigger topic to handle in a completely different venue. What we will focus on today is packaging all the financial devices you will most likely encounter on calls for service involving fraud.
First things first, we need to know what kind of documentation we will need. As you may have guessed, this will not be much different than searching a vehicle for drugs and firearms. We need an Evidence Log, a document where we mark items numbers, describe said items, the location where the items were found, and who found the item. Second to that, we need a Photography Log. This log is where we document the photos taken of each item. These two items should be within your Evidence Management Software, which should alleviate the hassle of carrying lots of paperwork around. The photography log will act as an electronic document of digital evidence, while the evidence log is the document of record concerning the items of evidence that you obtain. Together, they form a complete account of the evidence, both digital and physical that coincide with the case. The item numbers need to correspond, along with descriptions, and where the item was located. If you take multiple pictures of a given item, that’s fine. Make sure you document that in the digital evidence log as you take each picture. Third, were going to need packaging materials. Properly packaging financial instruments on scene is best, because these are typically not calls laced in emergent elements. However, if circumstances dictate otherwise, use gloves, document the items thoroughly, and place them into a bag for retrieval later. It’s not recommended, but again, sometimes the demands shift work change procedure.
The last item in this list is not always available to a given agency, but I highly recommend using evidence management software that provides barcoding technology, linking the data you enter into the software to a specific case number and produces a printed label with a barcode that is specific to the item. With fraud crime, one can easily be documenting upwards of 50 items, and sometimes much more. If your agency is still handwriting labels, it’s time to seriously consider changing that practice and making the evidence locker or room easier to navigate. It also frees up officers quicker from a given detail regarding evidence. More on that in a different article.
The second reason for using printed labels and barcode within an evidence management software is one that is becoming the expected standard around the country. And that is evidence management programs that integrate with software that the various courts that hear their cases utilize. No longer does a law enforcement agencies computer system stand on its own. Now court staff, prosecutors, and many others in criminal justice professions are expecting that their software will be integrated with law enforcement agencies, in an effort to reduce time and effort spent trying to obtain all the necessary reports, documents, and evidence related to a particular case. Courts want to be able to see evidence in a digital log at the same time that a criminal is in a bond hearing. They want to know that the case is completed, and there is nothing else left to be done. Probation Officers want to know what types of items the criminals were using to commit their crimes, post-conviction, as it will give them something to look for in advance, before a probationer re-offends. Psychologists who are court-appointed will need rapid access to files relating to the accused, in order to provide the court with a full picture of the criminal, as it relates to their mental state.
The people who look at an officer’s work after it’s done are many, and the expectation is that delay in communications between all parties can be reduced by software and program integration. Law enforcement agencies should be at the forefront of this change.
Now, let’s talk about the more common types of financial instruments you may come across in fraud a case, and how to document and package these items efficiently.
Cash, Counterfeit Currency, and Counterfeit Checks
Without a doubt, if you have at least a tavern or a bank in your jurisdiction, you’re going to come across counterfeit currency. It’s a complete pain in the neck, because usually the person who used the fake cash didn’t even realize it was fake. More and more these days, people are not understanding what to look for when they conduct sales and purchases between themselves and a third party stranger. And with the proliferation of websites like Craigslist, and cell phone apps, like Wallapop, Letgo, and OfferUp, more and more people are trying to monetize all their possessions they no longer desire. And criminals are finding ways to pawn off whatever counterfeit money they possess, without drawing a direct line back to them.
When it comes to checks, most everyone in law enforcement is familiar with “Nigerian” check cashing schemes, “Jamaican” lottery scams, and “Indian” IRS fraud rings. In all of these scams, fake checks come up from time to time, depending on how the criminals are working their scam. Most criminals are telling their victims to deposit a check from them, keeping some of the money for themselves, and send the rest back. In other cases, criminals have sent “test” checks to victims, telling them to deposit checks with low dollar amounts, as a way for the criminal to identify that the victim has real funds in their account, as it relates to the alleged debt they owe. In all of these scams, the criminals are merely interested in account takeover, commonly referred to as “ACH takeovers.” ACH refers to a type of direct deposit. In fact, your direct deposit with your employer is most likely an ACH form of direct deposit. ACH stands for Automatic Clearing House, in which a relationship between two accounts is formed, allowing for automatic fund deposits and withdrawals between the two accounts. That’s right, if your employer overpays you, they can request money back, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Not that you would want to, but that gives you an idea how this type check cashing works. If the victim deposits the check the criminal sends, it gives that criminal that type of access to the account of the victim. That’s how victims lose so much money in many of these scams. So when you have a victim coming forward with uncashed checks of this nature, it’s prudent to treat them as delicate pieces of evidence that can help track back to the criminals who sent them.
Getting back to currency for a moment, from an investigation standpoint, the great thing about counterfeit currency is that the person who makes it sometimes leaves clues behind, either in the type of ink they use, the way the specific lines don’t match up, and so on. Much like a passport counterfeiter typically lives a “calling card” behind, so do a number of currency counterfeiters. The same is true with counterfeit checks. The criminals always leave a calling card on them that identifies them, directly or indirectly. It can be the amount on the checks, the business or non-profit they have drawn the checks from, the routing number, the type of ink, check paper, or stamps that are on the check. Any and all of these parts are clues to who has created the checks and where they are from. As a patrol officer charged with packaging evidence, it’s imperative that as you review the items, you leave behind little to no disturbance.
As with all evidence handling, latex or latex-free gloves are required, or should be. Some agencies believe that by using four or five different sizes of the same exact style bag, that they are maintaining consistency for the court. When in fact, that type “consistency” does not matter. Solid fundamentals when selecting packaging for the item at hand is the consistency that matters most. Ensuring that the packaging is neat and appropriate for the item in question matters. If data needs to be placed on the bag it’s neat, orderly, and not distracting from the item are what matter.
A number of evidence supply companies have heat seal bags for this specific purpose. They work for both checks and currency. The typical dimensions are 1½ inches by 8½ inches. They are closed on one end, and with a small sized heat sealer, you seal the other end. Carefully place the item inside the bag, then run the open side into the heat sealer, and you’re done. This simple step in packaging ensures that the financial instrument’s integrity from crime scene to courtroom is maintained. It is highly recommended that your evidence management software utilize barcoding for all evidence, but if your agency does not have the money to go to that extra expense, placing a small label, preferably printed, in any of the corners of the bag is best practice. Make sure you pick one corner, and use that same corner with each item you are bagging.
By doing this in the neatest fashion possible, you make your evidence stand out as simple to follow, and easily organized. Again, these are calls that you won’t necessarily investigate from start to finish, but the success of prosecution falls on the early steps, which are all on you.
If and when an outside agency takes over custody, this procedure ensures that when handing off all items to them, that integrity was maintained, and that when the items reach a crime lab for analysis, that any evidence on them was not tainted in any way prior to arrival. If a mistake happens, it’s not on you, and that’s the reputation your agency should desire when it comes to asking for assistance from other agencies in any investigations.
Going back a step for minute, photography of these items are likely going to fall on you as well. Upon arrival at a given call, an impromptu interview with the complainant and/or victim will occur. They will describe what is happening. You already know this of course. But when they begin re-telling when they received a check in the mail from a “representative of a foreign lottery,” or a cash payout from a “door-to-door salesman,” they are most likely going to want to show you the item, and physically touch it. And they probably have already touched it at this point anyway. But stopping them from doing this in your presence is good practice. It’s not going to make or break the case necessarily, but limiting anymore touching by direct contact is always the way to go.
Photographing these items where they lay upon your contact is important for documentation purposes. If you have the time, bagging them right then are there, sans a heat sealer is even better. If you must, bagging them temporarily can make a smooth transition for getting the items from the location of the call, to the station for proper evidence packaging.
While setting up the items for packaging, photographing them again, prior to placing them in the bag, and then after sealing is also good practice for each item. Many agencies wouldn’t bother with such details, but again, if this ever goes to court, federal or otherwise, it’s always good to have as much details about encountering the suspicious items, how they were encountered, and how they were handled. Going this extra step can be mind-numbing, and may seem over the top to even a prosecutor. But it makes it far too difficult for a defense attorney to argue that evidence was handled improperly. On top of your written record of the evidence, you now have photographic details of the chain of custody, the manner in which the items were handled, and proof for a jury that speaks to words that would become professional jargon if stated out loud. This means less explanation on your part, less questions for those evaluating the merits of the case, and an easier time for those deciding guilt. All of those things are great to have on your side.
Of course, how to handle photographs as evidence is a whole other topic for another day.
Bearer Bonds, Stock Summaries, Certificates of Deposit and Other Paper Financial Documents
Just as we documented checks and currency with an Evidence Log and Photography Log within our Evidence Management Software, we are applying that same process to these items. Because these items are usually standard or legal sized documents, the bags you’ll need are going to be bigger. Most bags sold by supply companies measure 8½ inches by 12 inches (for standard sized documents), and 8½ by 15 inches (for legal sized documents). Bags of these size generally have a built in liner. This ensured the documents didn’t fold over on themselves, nor shifted in the bag. This maintained all ink, stamps, or other features of the document, so that they could be analyzed if necessary. And of course, keeps the attorneys and courts happy.
A side note concerning bags for any size or type of financial instrument; they should be saran coated. Saran, (as in Saran Wrap) is a coating that makes the bags impervious to air, vapor, or liquids. When it comes to documents, those are typically your biggest enemies when storing evidence. Fire always presents a danger, but that’s not your main concern as a patrol officer.
Again, if there is any labeling, we prefer printed labels showing only the pertinent details of the document, like case number, date retrieved, agency, possibly victim and suspect information, if needed. A barcoding function within your evidence management software is always best practice.
Packaging the Unexpected
You’ll find as a patrol officer that by answering calls involving fraud by phone, mail, and email, that your typical experience with evidence is going to go out the window. Especially for those that work in the “fly over” States, in isolated communities, this call is likely occurring multiple times a month, and your agency doesn’t have a great answer to it. Everything from wire transfer receipts, to property deeds end up being evidence. Barring the ability to investigate the matter, by taking the time to properly document the evidence, and record all pertinent data related to the incident in an evidence management system, you give those that will eventually investigate the matter a sporting chance at grabbing a suspect, even those overseas. At the same time, you cement professional relationships with outside agencies that although you maybe from a small agency, that you don’t take shortcuts, and you have a dynamic interest in seeking justice for all victims in your community.
Nothing is better at the end of the day than getting that call years later asking for you to testify in federal court over the matter, knowing that you handled the call like a true professional. Testifying may seem daunting, but to catch these type of bad guys is a true chase. One that is noble, and worth pursuing. These criminals victimize multiple people throughout the country, and no doubt, by handling your call professionally and with the highest of standards, you have put an end to victimization the country over, and how many officers can say that about their work?
Be safe out there!