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2 CHARGED IN PHONY TRAVELERS CHECKS OPERATION

Two men came to Western New York last week for a shopping spree and by Monday afternoon they had blown at least $17,000 on expensive clothing, jewelry and electronic equipment.

They didn't get much time to enjoy their purchases.

Cheektowaga police arrested the men Monday, breaking up an operation that used phony travelers checks to bilk stores in Cheektowaga, Amherst and Clarence out of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise since Friday, investigators said.

Police recovered the merchandise, as well as $6,000 in counterfeit travelers checks, said Cheektowaga Lt. James Morath.

"They're probably part of an organized ring that goes into cities for a few days, passes these counterfeit checks then goes off to another city before police can catch them," Morath said Tuesday. "Fortunately, in this case, we made the arrest."

Charged with criminal possession of a forged instrument were Hiep Bu, 32, of Whitesville, Ky. and Vu Nguyen, 24, of Baton Rouge, La.

Because both are Vietnamese immigrants, who aren't U.S. citizens, police have asked U.S. Immigration and Naturalization agents to get involved in the case, Morath said.

Both men were arraigned before Cheektowaga Justice Ronald E. Kmiotek and are being held on $50,000 cash or $70,000 bond.

The two tried to use travelers checks -- supposedly from Thomas Cook Currency Services -- to purchase items in Wal-Mart at the Thruway Plaza in Cheektowaga at about 1:30 p.m. Monday, according to police reports. A store clerk was suspicious, because employees had been tipped off that phony checks were being passed, police said.

Police said the suspects used counterfeit traveler's checks Sunday to buy a $1,100 diamond ring at the Wal-Mart on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, then returned the ring and received cash.

On Monday in Cheektowaga, the two suspects were detained by store security until Officers Richard Probst and Michael McDermott arrived and charged the two men with attempting to pass more counterfeit travelers checks.

After police obtained a search warrant from Lancaster Justice Timothy Dwan, they searched the suspects' Transit Road hotel room and found a $700 luggage set filled with electronic equipment, suits and $250 pairs of pants, Morath said.

"In their hotel room we recovered approximately $17,000 worth of merchandise," Morath said. "It ran the gamut from expensive clothing to video cameras, jewelry, a couple of paintings . . ."

State and Amherst police, as well as the Erie County Sheriff's Department, were contacted because similar checks were passed at the Eastern Hills Mall and Wal-Mart stores in Amherst and Clarence, Morath said.

The investigation is continuing. Cheektowaga police say anyone with information on the case should call Detective Ray Nowicki at 686-3505.

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