According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, a group of Romanian nationals located in Florida stole $740,000 from hundreds of churches by stealing contribution checks from their mailboxes and cashing them.
Authorities said the money was spent on automobiles, food, clothing and high-value wire transfers to Romania, Fox News reports. In what officials are dubbing "Operation Thou Shalt Not Steal," four people have been detained, and two more are wanted.
According to police, the crew was located in Orlando but went around Florida and other states stealing checks. Authorities listed 636 churches as casualties, 355 of which were in Florida. In a news release, FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen stated, "This low-tech yet well-organized effort to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of mailed-in charitable donations — at a time when donations may have been most needed — has been stopped."
The group had many bank accounts into which they deposited the checks and then utilized ATMs to withdraw cash once the checks cleared. Those who were arrested are all being held in the Orange County Jail. The suspects were all charged with unlawful possession of personal identification information, conspiracy to commit racketeering, racketeering, money laundering and grand theft.
The individuals were not represented by a lawyer, according to jail records.
Catalin Trandafir, 45, and Simona Trandafir, 39, who face the same charges, are still being pursued by authorities.
The inquiry began in December of last year after Cape Coral police found that 24 Lee County churches had been targeted.
"Churches depend on donations from generous members of the community to operate and serve those in need. It is despicable that this crime ring would exploit the selfless acts of kindness displayed through these donations for selfish greed," Attorney General Ashley Moody of Florida's Office of Statewide Prosecution said in a news release.
It is unknown when their court date will be.
Photo courtesy: Jinyun/Unsplash
John Paluska has been a contributor for Christian Headlines since 2016 and is the founder of The Washington Gazette, a news outlet he relaunched in 2019 as a response to the constant distribution of fake news.