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CMPD, Secret Service bust ATM fraud ring

Local and federal authorities announced Thursday they’ve broken up an organized crime ring that stole checkbooks from cars and homes and later used the checks to make fraudulent deposits into the suspects’ own bank accounts.

In the past two weeks, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and U.S. Secret Service agents have arrested 10 people on charges of stealing more than $300,000 from more than 55 victims in and around Charlotte.

The suspects used ATMs in Mecklenburg, York, Iredell, Union, Gaston, Catawba and Cabarrus counties to deposit the fake checks, authorities said, and then quickly withdrew the money before banks noticed the fraudulent deposits.

Police have warrants out for an 11th member of the ATM ring, and more people could be arrested as the investigation continues, said CMPD Major Crimes Detective Derrick Lail.

“These offenders were each involved in deposits at ATM machines,” Lail said at a news conference Thursday. “And most of the deposits were from checks that originated from victims of car break-ins or home break-ins.”

Thefts from cars have long been the most prevalent crime in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Last year, they accounted for nearly one of every four reported crimes.

Under Chief Rodney Monroe, police have started sending investigators to the scenes of most car break-ins – and police say that helped lead them to the ATM fraud ring. Previously they didn’t go to many car break-ins because of low solve rates.

Lail noted that street criminals have realized they can steal people’s financial information and sell it to organized groups of financial thieves.

“From our interviews, we’re actually finding that it’s driven some of the street-level victimization,” he said.

Officers with CMPD’s Major Crime Unit first noticed a couple of months ago that people who had their cars or home broken into were also reporting their bank accounts depleted, Lail said.

Detectives then partnered with the Secret Service and local banks to identify suspects.

Authorities said they discovered that lower-level thieves were stealing checkbooks and credit cards from cars and homes. They would then sell those credit cards and checks to mid- and upper-level criminals, who recruited people to open new bank accounts, police said.

The suspects deposited the fake checks into those bank accounts via ATMs, then quickly withdrew the money before banks discovered the fraud, CMPD Detective Andy Curlee said.

The financial crimes detective said this kind of crime is attractive to thieves because it’s hard for police to identify upper-level suspects.

“They’re able to make money pretty quickly, pretty easily,” Curlee said. “It’s difficult for them to get caught.”

Detectives are still trying to determine the scope of the ATM fraud ring. Most of the suspects knew each other – either because they grew up together, are relatives or had met while in jail for other crimes, police said.

Lail said investigators made a breakthrough in the case after police distributed images to the news media of some of the suspects at local ATMs.

“That was a pivotal moment in the case, when we were able to correlate and move forward,” Lail said.

Ten men were arrested on financial crimes charges. They are Phillip Harris, 29, Antonio Harris, 36, Patrick McCollough, 29, Quillie Smith III, 28, Carlton Ardrey, 26, Rashad Johnson, 26, Travis Gabriel, 27, Yarral Wilson, 26, John Erwin III, 23, and Elijah Grant, 28.

McCollough, Ardrey and Johnson were also charged with larceny from auto, police said.

John Erwin III, 23, was arrested on drug charges, and police were searching for Martell Mackey, 25, on financial crimes charges.

All of the suspects are Charlotte residents.

Steele: 704-3358-5067 on Twitter: @steelecs
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