The Crumpled Kite
As mentioned earlier, kiting isn’t as common as it used to be, partly because of stiff penalties, but also because the time it takes to clear a check with another bank has shrunk from many days– sometimes a couple of weeks– to just a day or two. But when I consulted, I witnessed a kiting scheme that could have fooled financial institutions and their computers almost indefinitely.
A bank in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley decided to invest its excess computer resources in software development and I contracted as their consultant. It was an odd relationship because they feared me as if they’d hired a gunslinger to guard the vault.
One evening I idled, waiting for computer time; in fact, I was waiting for a new guy to finish the night’s reconciliation run. As I sat tapping my fingers, he called the lead operator over and pointed out a worn, battered check. The lead glanced and dismissed it, saying “Just stick it in an envelope, imprint it, and run it through again.”
“But…” said the new guy hesitantly, aware the lead seemed annoyed he didn’t jump to it. “But, we can’t. I mean, it arrived in a carrier envelope and look, it’s not our routing number. And it's really old.”
It was still early evening when the manager strolled in. He looked at the check and made a phone call. When he hung up, he shrugged and turned to the supervisor, “No matter, we’ll find out in the morning what’s going on.”
But by now, the worn check had captured my curiosity and that of my colleagues. Three of us sat down to figure it out. We discovered a scam, and this is how it worked.
The Endless Kite
From a common check supply company, our schemer bought checks printed with Frugal Savings & Loan’s name, address, and logo, but with Penury Bank’s routing number. He waltzed into a bank other than Frugal Savings & Loan, cashed his check, and departed without a care in the world.
That evening during the check run, the machine sorted his check into a tray to be delivered to the clearing house. From there on out, the following cycle endlessly repeated:
- The check arrives at the clearing house. Its routing number routes the check to Penury Bank & Trust.
- During the check run at Penury, the computer accepts the routing number but doesn’t recognize the check’s bogus account number and kicks it into the rejects pocket.
- A Penury operator plucks it out of the rejects pocket, notices it bears a Frugal Savings & Loan logo and address on it, and either manually packages it to send directly to Frugal S&L or bundles it to send back to the central clearing house for forwarding to Frugal. Either way, the check winds up at Frugal Savings & Loan.
- At Frugal, the MICR reader sees another bank’s routing number, knows that’s wrong, and kicks the check into the rejects pocket. It goes back to the clearing house to repeat the cycle again.
The Kite that Crashed
The cycle eventually broke because constant transit nearly wore out the check and an inexperienced operator questioned why a draft on his bank contained an unfamiliar routing number.
We don’t know how many experienced operators routinely handled the check, seeing the bank name and logo and not the routing number, just as their computers saw the routing number and not the bank name.
Banks (at least at that time) did not have a standardized way of handling a check that forever floated but never cleared. In many cases, the bank software simply left the deposit unresolved with neither the funds transferred nor reserved– it simply stayed on the books, so to speak. In banks that impose holds, their programs might be written to release the hold after a number of days if the check isn’t returned, even if the funds aren’t actually received.
I speculate the scheme might have been harder to detect if non-magnetic digits had been printed over ‘invisible’ MICR ink. In other words, the pigment in MICR ink is for the convenience of people. The computer itself doesn’t use optical recognition (OCR) but senses the microscopic particles in the numbers.
No one’s immune to bunco, not even banks.