FBI agents and local police are investigating a suspected fraud scheme by some members of a Chicago-based religious cult that authorities say is aimed at area banks and savings and loan associations.
Federal and state investigators said the operation, suspected of stealing at least $1 million from Chicago banking institutions, recently moved into the Washington area, specifically Alexandria, Arlington and Prince George's County.
Police in Arlington said they expect to make arrests as early as next week. Alexandria officials said they are investigating two bank fraud cases that may involve cult members.
Typically, officials said, the cult members find employment as bank tellers, clerks or loan officers. They then allegedly steal money through a variety of schemes, including check forgery, credit card fraud, theft of travelers checks and embezzlement.
In Chicago, FBI agent Robert Zimmerman said yesterday that members of the cult, identified as the Black Hebrews, are being investigated in connection with alleged infiltration of private corporations and the use of sophisticated banking techniques to move stolen funds across international borders, primarily to Europe.
In Atlanta, a Georgia police official said eight group members were arrested earlier this year in connection with possession of stolen merchandise, including thousands of dollars in stolen airline tickets.
The cult members' activities (reported this week by the Journal and Globe newspapers in Northern Virginia) are apparently new to the Washington area, sources said. In the last two months, worried bank officials have held three meetings with police and FBI officials to plan protective measures.
At one of those meetings, the name of a teller hired days before by Northern Virginia's largest savings and loan association was mentioned by police officials as a possible suspect. Authorities at the 1st Federal Savings and Loan Association of Arlington closely monitored the man's activities during his first day on the job. The man did not return for a second day's employment.
"An audit we conducted after he left work that day showed no loss to the bank," said Stephen Detwiler, a bank vice president.
Detwiler said authorities alleged that as much as $20,000 may have been stolen by people identified as cult members from area financial institutions. That figure apparently includes as much as $10,000 missing in two Alexandria bank fraud cases, officials said.
"The authorities tell us they are in this area," Donald Lundquist, director of security for the 57-branch 1st Virginia Bank, said yesterday.
"We've been told they try to find employment anywhere they can, get inside, and then try to manipulate things within their departments. It might be something like taking travelers checks, or changing the address on an envelope, so a check goes to one address instead of another," he said.
Lundquist said he did not believe his bank had suffered any losses. Area police refused to disclose any names of banks that had been victimized.
FBI officials and others familiar with the cult said it often couches its appeal to would-be members by stating that is it waging "a holy war" against white-run financial institutions. One investigator cautioned, however, that he was unsure whether the concept of a "holy war" was a clear-cut goal of the group, or simply "part of its own self-hype."
One local FBI agent involved in the investigation said, "As far as we know, they recruit people without criminal records, and have them open accounts at local banks. Once they establish good credit lines, other people apparently steal funds from banks, which are then deposited in the accounts. Eventually the funds are withdrawn," he said. t
That procedure is similar to one allegedly used by cult members in Chicago, according to Chicago-based FBI agent Zimmerman."They place someone next to negotiable securities, such as cashier's checks and money orders, which are then stolen and deposited in previously opened bank accounts," Zimmerman said. "They then begin transferring funds within the banks until they get to an American bank with overseas offices. Finally the funds are wired overseas, where they are withdrawn.
We're also investigating them for passport violations. Some of them change names the way you change ties," he said.
Earlier this year, the Georgia law enforcement officials who arrested eight suspected cult members, seized $60,000 worth of goods stored in a safe house in Atlanta, according to Steve Simmons, a special agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Some of the goods, including electronic equipment, were boxed and awaiting shipment to Chicago, Simmons said.
Simmons said that an investigation begun in December by his agency revealed that cult members had managed to infiltrate every bank and most major retail outlets in Atlanta.
Little is known about the origins of the cult, but Simmons said the group's leader now lives in Israel. An estimated 1,500 cult members, who trace their descent from the ancient Hebrews, live on three communes in Israel, Simmons said.
FBI agent Zimmerman said the group's activities in New York and Detroit are also under investigation.