I-TEAM: Thieving check-washers target S.A. seniors' mailboxes

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by Joe Conger / KENS 5

Bio | Email | Follow: @joe_conger

kens5.com

Posted on May 21, 2012 at 10:05 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 22 at 8:43 AM

SAN ANTONIO -- Helen Guzman wanted to make sure that check for the ambulance service was paid on time, so she called the company. It’s a good thing she did.

“It’s already been a month and you should have the money,” Guzman said to the service agent on the phone. “So I called the bank next.”

Somehow, the face of the check had been altered, and $50 had become $500 while the ambulance company became “Carlos Reyes.”

 “I was thinking, 'Oh, God... that’s sad, because that’s a lot of money,'" Guzman said.

According to the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office White Collar Crime Division, check fraud is on the rise in San Antonio, and it begins just outside a senior citizen’s door.

“They put the flag up and that’s just an invitation. They could take the checks out of the mailbox in the morning and have them washed, dried and cashed by noon,” said Assistant D.A. Joanne Woodruff.

Because it starts with mail theft, the U.S. Postal Inspector is involved. The postal inspector said there are at least two open investigations, and federal agents are sharing information with San Antonio police.

In front of a district judge, Joel Cruz is receiving his punishment for check fraud. He cashed one of the checks at a Wells Fargo branch bank for $428.

Cruz’s attorney told the judge Cruz had a history of drug offenses. But this time Cruz is in deeper trouble: Stealing from the elderly in Texas “bumps up” the offense to a third-degree felony, punishable with up to 10-years in state prison.

Cruz received two years in prison and a probated sentence with time served.

Investigators at the D.A.’s office believe Cruz may have been the fall guy for a much larger operation.

Woodruff added, “The person cashing the check may be getting $20, $50 for cashing a $500 check, and they're getting a criminal record, getting arrested. And it’s really, really not smart.”

In fact, more than half a dozen men are linked as possible ”fall guys” who score some pocket change to cash a check for someone else.

Woodruff said she noticed a pattern, pointing to a common check-washer. In the memo section of the checks, notes were added: welding, plumbing, exterior work.

“If you look at the checks, the handwriting is very similar on the checks,” said Woodruff.

The District Attorney’s Office, the postal inspector and check fraud victims are now advocates for being vigilant with the mail. Guzman says she takes no chances anymore, taking her mail directly to a postal center.

“I went and told my neighbors, because we’re not rich. We need all our money,” said Guzman.

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