Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Mail Box Thefts, Scam Trail Lead South of the Border

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Mail Box Thefts, Scam Trail Lead South of the Border

Article excerpt

Carolyn Ditzian doesn't send mail from her house anymore - she can't be sure who will cash her utility or tax payments. Her friend Ann Prochaska feels the same way.

Both were victims of a scheme in which thousands of dollars worth of personal checks were stolen from home mail boxes where they awaited pickup by mail carriers, and then laundered through Central and South American banks.

Though the women - who live miles apart - were eventually reimbursed by U.S. banks that processed the checks, they say the incident has convinced them the sanctity of the U.S. mail is a fallacy.

"I had to repay everybody until I was reimbursed," said Prochaska, of suburban Davie. Checks of hers worth $4,000 were stolen last February. "I was just angry. I felt violated. I've never had anybody rob the house, but it felt the same."

Ditzian, who lost checks worth more than $5,000, including her property-tax payment, said that initially no one wanted to hear her story.

"The first time I called police, they didn't even take a report on it," said Ditzian of Broward County. "The post office was absolutely no help at all."

Not so, says Postal Inspector Henry Gutierrez, who infiltrated the scam.

Federal agents last month arrested five men, two from Argentina and three from Miami. All are charged with possession of stolen mail and could face 10 years in prison if convicted.

Gutierrez said that he had identified the main check fence and that money laundering charges are pending.

"There's still thieves down the line out there," Gutierrez said. "But they have no way of laundering the money."

Gutierrez said the men stole more than 1,000 checks worth about $1 million, ranging from a 25-cent highway toll fee to a $42,000 check, and including everything from utility payments to catalog orders.

The checks were then sold to middlemen who deposited them in bank accounts opened under the names of fictitious businesses. …

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