LARGO — After a two-year investigation, authorities said Wednesday that they have broken up a widespread check counterfeiting network that stole millions of dollars from Florida banks.
About 100 people, broken into six rings, took part in the scheme, which started in Tampa more than a decade ago, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said.
Arrest warrants were issued Wednesday for nine people in one Tampa-based group. Others will be charged later, Coats said, as the statewide prosecutor works through the cases.
"This is the largest racketeering case ever investigated by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office,'' he said.
Authorities say the scheme worked like this:
Thieves would steal mail from U.S. Postal Service mailboxes in business parks, looking for checks mailed by businesses.
Ringleaders would quickly copy those checks so they could mass-produce them with proper account numbers. They would then return the original check to the mailbox so neither the sender nor receiver had any idea the check had been intercepted and copied.
Using the copies, ringleaders would create fake payroll checks from that business to a bogus employee. They would also create fake identification cards for the same "employee.''
They would then enlist drug addicts, homeless people or other "runners'' who would agree to pose as phony employees and cash the payroll checks. Ringleaders would take the runners to a bank and wait outside to collect the money. The runner kept only a small portion, sheriff's officials said.
The checks might total as much as $3,000 and the counterfeiters might hit five bank branches in one day, said Tim Goodman, who heads the sheriff's economics crime unit.
"For five days a week, that's $15,000 a day. You do the math,'' said Goodman. "That could be $3.9-million'' a year from just the one group whose members were arrested Wednesday.
Checks were stolen in 12 counties, from businesses that included the Polk County Sheriff's Office, the clerk of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court and the city of North Port in Sarasota County.
Authorities had suspected the scheme for years but could never make a case. In January 2007, the Pinellas Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service made it a priority. They managed to arrest a few runners and developed informers within the groups.
Other law enforcement agencies joined in with tips and surveillance, which began in February, and assistant statewide prosecutor Cathy McKyon signed on to lead the prosecution.
Authorities have now identified more than 350 phony check transactions totaling more than $700,000, Coats said.
The six identified rings are connected, he said. Family members and friends from one ring branched out to start their own ring, with levels of leadership reporting up the ladder.
Alleged members of the "Jackson group'' arrested on racketeering charges Wednesday include: Alexander Jackson, 55, of 1142 W La Salle St., Tampa; Alexander Jackson Jr., 36, of 3606 N Phillips St., Tampa; and Levaughn Boggs, 53, of 2903 N 34th St., Tampa.
Neither they nor their families could be reached for comments Wednesday.
They face up to 60 years in prison, said McKyon, the assistant statewide prosecutor.
Banks are relieved.
Though businesses, many of them small, had their accounts temporarily cleaned out, banks eventually repaid the money, said Rod Frankland, vice president of corporate security for Regions Bank.
When banks first noticed a bunch of bogus payroll checks for $3,000, they trained tellers to contact customers before cashing any above $2,500, Frankland said.
The thieves figured that out and suddenly a bunch of $1,800 payroll checks showed up.
"So we dropped (the customer calls) to $1,500 and they dropped the checks to $1,000," he said. "It was just a numbers game.''
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and staff writer Stephanie Garry contributed to this report.