tampabay.com

20 are arrested in check scam

The ring stole numbers, then printed phony checks, Hillsborough investigators say.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 1, 2008


TAMPA - Hillsborough sheriff's investigators announced Thursday the break up of a counterfeit check-cashing ring where people stole bank account information from victims and cashed fraudulent checks totalling more than $50,000.

Milo Roderick Martin, 37, of 6907 Halifax River Drive, Tampa, was charged with racketeering and labeled by investigators as the "head of the snake" of the operation.

Between April 2005 and January, Martin obtained legitimate checks from people and then created counterfeit checks with a computer program like VersaCheck, using the victims' routing and account numbers, said sheriff's Maj. Harold Winsett.

Martin then gave the checks and false IDs to accomplices to cash at financial institutions, "mom and pop" stores and the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Valrico, Sgt. John Campo said.

Two of Martin's "lieutenants" - 26-year-old Xavier Williams, 1205 E. Mohawk Ave., and 35-year-old Keith Gardner, 2107 E Ida St., both in Tampa - recruited people to cash the checks, Campo said.

Gardner was usually the driver who took recruits to places to cash the checks, investigators said.

The check amounts ranged from about $700 to $3,000, they said, labeling as victims the financial institutions, stores and individuals who had money stolen from their accounts.

The "casher" would get about a third of the money, and usually one of the lieutenants and Martin each got a third, authorities said.

While most of the original bank account information in this case was lifted from legitimate checks, Winsett said these scams sometimes involve the theft of mail or garbage.

"That's why it's so important for people to shred their mail," Winsett said.

Detectives tracked down the ring after turning up the similar names and places of victims from cases reported to various local police agencies.

The estimated losses so far are about $50,000, though investigators said they expect the total will exceed $100,000.

A total of 20 people have been arrested since April 2005, with more arrests expected.

Detectives picked up Williams and Gardner on Wednesday after they cashed a counterfeit check at Wal-Mart Supercenter in Valrico, Winsett said.

Gardner was charged with driving with a revoked licence and released from jail on $2,000 bail. Officials said more charges are pending.

Williams was charged with two counts of grand theft, two counts of forgery and providing a false name to a law enforcement officer. He was released from the county jail on $23,500 bail.

Martin was arrested Thursday morning and remains in the county jail with no bail.

Winsett said investigators are working with prosecutors to see if they can also charge the other accomplices with racketeering. If convicted on that charge, Martin could get 30 years in prison.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or 661-2441.