Sonoma County Sheriff's detectives are on the trail of at least 13 suspects they think are responsible for stealing checks, altering them and cashing them for large sums of money.
They're tracking at least 21 cases in which checks have been stolen from mail boxes, altered or counterfeited, and cashed at local banks. Two suspects had been arrested, but others are sought.
"This (mail theft) is not something new, but we've seen a big spike in it all of a sudden" said Sgt. Mike Raasch, who leads the sheriff's property crimes investigation unit. He said he believes the cases his and other law enforcement agencies have tracked since September may be connected, possibly through an organized check-cashing ring.
As he spoke, the wall behind his desk was covered with mug shots of suspects, who mainly are from East Bay cities. A particularly clear trail of clues has been left, he said. Sometimes the culprits counterfeit new checks but more often they wash the original ink from stolen checks and then write the check out again, usually for a certain amount: $923.17. More recently, some checks in the amount of $1,200 have been detected. The counterfeiters often leave another clue on the check's memo line: a five-digit number, followed by a dash and three more numbers, he said.
The check is then taken to the bank where it originated and cashed, often by people using their real identification, Raasch said.
Mendocino County investigators also noted an increase in mail theft and issued a press release to warn residents.
"For the past several weeks unknown persons have been stealing mail from roadside mailboxes primarily in the Ukiah and Redwood Valley areas," said Mendocino Sheriff's Capt. Greg Van Patten in the statement. He said the thefts were happening primarily during the late night and early morning hours. He asked that anyone who sees someone tampering with a roadside mailbox to call 463-4086.
The Sonoma County detectives are collaborating with U.S. Postal Service inspectors as well as Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol police as they pursue the case. They're also in touch with other jurisdictions, including the Monterey County Sheriff's Office and Carmel police, that are tracking some of the same suspects.
This week, cases continued to arrive on Raasch's desk. Reports seem to be picking up, he said. There have been at least seven since Jan. 1. Still, Raasch estimates that about half the crimes have gone unreported, as people often don't realize right away that mail has been stolen.
"The banks are now aware that there's a trend and they're scrutinizing checks a lot more carefully," he said. No bank interviewed by the Press Democrat said it had experienced a major increase in check fraud in recent months, but that could be because the fraud has been spread out across numerous institutions. Fraudulent transaction and mail thefts in Sonoma County have been detected in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Cotati and Sebastopol, Raasch said.
Bank officials said that they are working with police and alerting their staff to watch out for fraud. They also emphasized that account holders are not financially responsible for fraudulent checks cashed -#8212; the banks are.
Brad Hunter, senior vice president at Exchange Bank, said that his bank has alerted its tellers to the current problem.