A loosely knit illegal cash-checking operation has used fake identification cards and real bank account numbers to steal at least $250,000 from area banks and liquor stores over the past two years according to area law enforcement officials.
At least 82 persons have been charged during the last six months in connection with the scheme and the investigation is continuing officials said.
In addition to the losses suffered by the banks and liquor stores, investigators added, customers whose real bank account numbers were unwittingly used have suffered "irreparable damage to their credit and bank records" because of bad checks being filtered through their accounts by the fraud scheme.
The customers' account numbers would be obtained through a variety of means, according to court documents filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Randolph Teslik, who is coordinating the complex investigation by D.C. and Prince George's County police, cret Service and other agencies.
For example, Teslik said, the account numbers would be obtained from a lost or stolen wallet or pocketbook, by peering over a customer's shoulder as he made a bank transaction, or-in at least one instance-by rummaging through a bank's trash cans for used deposit slips.
On other occasions, the check-passers would open a legitimate bank account by depositing a small amount of cash and then go to other branches of the same bank to pass bad checks -- often relying on the yellow pages of the telephone book to find the other locations, officials said.
Investigators have identified three persons as key operators of the fraud, who allegedly would send others -- many of them drug addicts-into banks to cash the checks.
One of those three, identified in court papers as Reginald Mebane, has been sentenced to 5-to-15 years in prison for his part in the fraud. Another is identified in court papers as Aplha Lee Johnson, a fugitive from a Prince George's County forgery charge. The third has not yet been charged in connection with the scheme.
Some identification cards used in the scheme have been traced to drivers' license-type ID card machines stolen from the District government. One of those machines was stolen from the Lorton prison complex, investigators said.
Police officers who have worked on the case, including Det. Robert L. Pleger of the D.C. police check and fraud squad and Prince George's County police Cpl. Richard Donnelly, described the scheme as follows:
The operators would obtain a real name and blank account number. Then a check payable to that name in amounts ranging from $200 to $500 was written on a stolen business bank account check or on a business account set up for the fraud scheme to use.
Next, a fake ID with a photograph was made for that person, or the person obtained a real Maryland age-of-majority card or a real D.C. identification card by using faked supporting documents.
The person then went to the chosen bank and actually deposited a small portion of the check- -usually $50 or so -- into the account of the person whose name he was using. He or she then took the rest out in cash, kept $50 or $100 for actually passing the check, and gave the rest to the person operating the scheme.
Investigators said narcotics addicts in certain sections of D.C. knew of the scheme and would voluntarily ask to participate in the scheme when they needed money. The addicts have since told officers they went along with the scheme because it was less risky than bank robbery, officers said.
Teslik said that although the customers whose accounts were used usually were made financially whole by the banks the use of their accounts threw their "financial lives into havoc."
He said that because of the bad checks being passed through their accounts, they have been placed on check "alert" lists at area businesses and have been listed as bad risks at credit reporting agencies.
Investigators probing the fraudulent check-cashing rings also have uncovered a small cash counterfeiting operation and about $100,000 worth of illegal drugs while executing search warrants in the case, according to court records.