88 charged for stealing $5 million in mailed paychecks to birthday checks, officials say

More than 80 suspects, many from two Los Angles County street gangs, have been charged for their roles in a years-long scheme that stole nearly $5 million from 750-plus victims in California, Arizona and Nevada who had sent or were to receive mailed checks, officials said on Friday, Oct. 7.

Of the 88 charged, 56 were arrested, with at least some of the others already in jail or prison.

At the U.S. Postal Inspection Service facility in Pasadena, authorities outlined “Operation Checks in the Mail” — saying the suspects, beginning in 2018, would steal paychecks to birthday checks from grandparents, “wash” off the names of the recipients, and write in fraudulent names.

They would then “swiftly withdraw the money before the financial institutions discovered the checks were forged,” said Carroll Harris, inspector in charge of the Los Angeles Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

“The masterminds behind this scheme would recruit individuals on social media to open bank accounts or utilize their own checking accounts to deposit the fraudulent checks,” Harris said.

Ring members operated out of multiple counties across the state. Officials said 769 people were victimized, but they did not disclose, even when a postal official was asked by a reporter, how the suspects got their hands on the checks.

Three years ago, various banks began alerting the U.S. Postal Inspection Service after noticing discrepancies, Harris said, but he did not have specifics.

“Hundreds of families’ … hard-earned money was brazenly stolen by criminals,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said at the press conference. “There needs to be accountability for these crimes, and there will be.”

Bonta said the 88 defendants face a total of 330 felony counts. Of those suspects, about 70 were from Los Angeles County, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said. Charges include aggravated white-collar crime, conspiracy to commit grand theft by false pretenses, forgery relating to an item exceeding $950, and money laundering, Bonta’s office said.

Police departments in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Hermosa Beach and Long Beach assisted in the operation. The U.S. Marshals Service, Homeland Security, California State Parole Agents, Los Angeles County Probation and the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services also helped.

“If you steal a family’s hard-earned money, we will find you,” Bonta said. “We will come after you; we will hold you accountable.”

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