Charleston County businesses recouped more than half a million dollars through a worthless check program set up a year ago through the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office, a feat Solicitor Scarlett Wilson hailed as a victory Tuesday for merchants, law enforcement and offenders.

"It's a win-win for everybody," Wilson said. "It allows business owners to recoup money lost to them through bad checks, and it allows bad check writers to make good and not have a criminal record."

It also lessens the need for warrants, freeing up law enforcement to deal with other crimes, she added.

Wilson said 134 businesses received $505,000 in restitution payments for about 4,000 bad checks, including one supplier who was handed two bad checks for $23,000 apiece from a local restaurant.

Wilson said the one-year anniversary was an ideal time to spread the word to the thousands of other businesses in Charleston County that aren't taking advantage of the program.

"We just have to get more people to use it," Wilson said. "Writing bad checks is far from a victimless crime. In the current economic climate, businesses can't afford to write off losses from fraud."

Under the program, business owners turn in the bad check along with a filled-out form found on the solicitor's website.

"It costs nothing but a stamp," Wilson said.

The three-person Worthless Check Unit in the solicitor's office takes it from there. They mail the offender a letter asking for restitution of the bad check's amount plus other fees to avoid prosecution.

"The cost to citizens is zero," the solicitor said. It is funded by the fees collected on bad checks.

Before the program was launched, a business owner had to pay for and send a certified letter to the bad check writer and, if not reimbursed, take the case to court. Some merchants chose to absorb the loss instead of fighting back because of the red tape and expenses involved.

In one instance, Fred Whittle of Buck Lumber on James Island notified a bad check writer several times with no response because he said the offender knew it would be expensive for the business to pursue the matter on its own.

"As soon as I forwarded it to the Worthless Check Unit, it caught his attention," Whittle said.

Katherine Valentine of James Island Cleaners said people respond to the solicitor's office letterhead.

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"It's saved us a lot of time," she said of the program.

Karen Rice of Franklin C. Fetter Family Health Center said the program helped the agency collect thousands of dollars since the agency started using it in January.

"It's a valuable service," Rice said.

The program also eases the workload for the Sheriff's Office.

"It has cut down significantly on the number of people we have had to jail for bad checks," Deputy Sheriff Reggie Sharpe said. "The merchants are happy, and the people don't get a criminal record."

Wilson hopes to expand the program to Berkeley County, which also is part of the 9th Judicial Circuit.

She plans to approach Berkeley County Council in the fall for approval.

Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or wwise@postandcourier.com.