Woman says contractor went missing after taking her check

Check-cashing store still demanding payment despite canceled check, she says

By Layron Livingston - Reporter

COOPER CITY, Fla. - Genise Harrelson already had the fixtures and some of the supplies for her master bathroom redo.

"Really, the only thing that needed to be done was the drywall, patching the walls a little bit, painting everything," she said.

Harrelson used a contractor in other parts of her home in Cooper City and decided to hire him to finish her bathroom.

"This is why I'm still getting ready for work in my bedroom and brushing my teeth in the kitchen," she told the Leave it to Layron team.

Harrelson said she wrote her contractor a check for $328 as a deposit and to purchase some materials.

But in the days that followed, she said her contractor was unresponsive, missed appointments and had too many excuses.

"I have a limit to my understanding," she said. "At this point, we're not going to do this." 

Harrelson said she asked her contractor to bring her the check, or the amount in cash or the materials he purchased. She said he agreed to meet her at her home within 15 minutes of her request.  

Several hours went by and Harrelson said her contractor never showed up with her check. She called her bank to stop payment.

Just a few days later, she got a call from a check-cashing store.

"And they were asking me certain questions," she said. "'Well, did you write this in good faith?' It was, like, very specific wording."

The check-cashing store also sent her a letter with the following statement underlined: "As the maker of these check(s), you are required to honor these check(s). The payment can be stopped, but the drawer remains liable on the instrument to the holder in due course…" 

Adding insult to injury, the check-cashing store was also charging Harrelson a $40 returned-check fee.

"I thought it was a wash," Harrelson said. "When you start talking all this legal jargon, I don't know what all that means."

The Leave it to Layron team spoke with Greg Litster, president of SafeChecks, a check fraud and prevention business. 

"People think they can place a stop-payment on a check and that ends their obligation to pay the check," Litster said. "That simply is not true."

Litster consulted with Frank Abagnale to design the high-security checks his company offers. 

Abagnale is one of the country's most notable check fraudsters. His cons were made famous in the biopic, "Catch Me If You Can." Abagnale's expertise also caught the attention of the FBI, which tapped him to help catch other fraudsters.

Litster said if it weren't for Abagnale, he would likely have never heard of the legal term "holder in due course." 

HIDC is spelled out in the Uniform Commercial Code, the laws that regulate business transactions in the United States.  

"A holder in due course is anybody who accepts a check in their ordinary course of business, and on the face of the check there's no evidence of alteration or forgery," Litster said.   

He went on to explain Harrelson's stop-payment was placed at the bank, and not on the check. When the contractor accepted Harrelson's check, he became a holder in due course. When the contractor endorsed the check over to the check-cashing store, the store became the holder in due course.

"Legally, [the store] has a right, under the law, to be paid the face value of that check," Litster said. 

Litster said the store can also sue Harrelson for that money for up to 10 years from the date of the check.

He said, in the end, she will be liable for the amount of the check and the returned check fee.

But, Litster said, there is a way to keep that from happening to you.

"Put an expiration date on a check," he said.

He said his company even researched the best legal verbiage: "This check expires and is void __ days from the issue date."

"It's amazing," Litster said. "It's just that simple."

Litster said the number of days can be whatever you choose, but the idea is to keep it short and minimize your risk. He said writing one day is an option.

"The banks are not going to pay attention to 'x' number of days," he said. "This is strictly for (the) holder in due course defense."

Litster said some of his customers have also started printing on the endorsement line of their checks: "This check may not be negotiated at a check-cashing store."

He said doing so requires the check to be negotiated at a bank or credit union.

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