One wrote fake checks, one gave them out, a dozen others cashed them across Florida, cops say

Investigators said Florida banks were scammed out of thousands of dollars after a group cashed several counterfeit checks.

Detectives with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office started their investigation in March 2018.

“This was a very thorough investigation thanks to the relentless work of our detectives over the course of several months,” Sheriff Tom Knight said in a news release. “Let this be a message to those who think they can target our community and our businesses, that their criminal behavior is not welcome here.”

In a news release, investigators said one person provided counterfeit checks to another, who would recruit people to cash them at various banks.

In Sarasota County, the cashed fraudulent checks added up to $131,906 from 26 transactions over six months. But officials believe the group completed 54 total transactions, stealing nearly $270,000 from banks across the state. The first documented incident, according to a probable cause affidavit, was Dec. 15, 2017, at a Sarasota County SunTrust bank.

Transactions occurred two or three times a day at banks between Brandon and Fort Myers and ranged from $4,500 to $5,300, according to the sheriff’s office.

Wilfredo Lopez, 29, of Miami, gave counterfeit checks to 22-year-old Eliener Castano-Paredes, of Wesley Chapel, according to the sheriff’s office. Castano-Paredes then recruited others to cash the checks.

Between December 2017 and May 2018, those recruits kept a percentage of the money while the rest was returned to Lopez through Castano-Paredes.

According to the affidavit, Castano-Paredes would approach people telling them about a quick way to make money by cashing checks. Once they agreed, their information would be used for the fraudulent checks. They would be coached with a cover story, be dropped off at banks and told to wait for a text message to initiate the transaction, in order to keep them from being detected.

Later, they would be picked up and give the cash to Castano-Paredes, who would then give the person their percentage.

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Fourteen people were arrested in connection with a fraud scheme after more than $130,000 was stolen from Sarasota banking institutions over six months, according to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Investigators believe there more than 50 total fraudulent transactions across the state. Sarasota County Sheriff's Office

Lopez and Castano-Paredes are each charged with one count of scheming to defraud over $50,000.

Twelve others, ranging in age from 18 to 50 years old, were arrested and charged in connection with the investigation. The charges against them include uttering a forged instrument, grand theft and criminal use of personal identification.

Additional charges are pending, according to the sheriff’s office.

The investigation is ongoing.

Sara Nealeigh covers what’s happening in the cities of Bradenton and Palmetto, Florida for the Bradenton Herald. She previously covered breaking news for the Herald after moving to Florida from Ohio in 2016.