Crime & Courts

Hip-hop group members from Charlotte indicted in $1.2 million ID theft scheme

Members of a Charlotte hip-hop group face decades in prison after being indicted in connection with a $1.2 million bank and identity theft fraud scheme.

Seven members and associates of the FreeBandz Gang are accused of financing what federal prosecutors called their lavish lifestyles by defrauding banks through a scheme involving worthless checks.

Band members raised their profile by posting hip-hop music videos and images on YouTube and Facebook that showed them with guns, lots of cash, jewelry and cars, according to the indictment unsealed in U.S. District Court in Charlotte on Wednesday. A federal grand jury returned the 46-count indictment on Dec. 13, court records show.

Group members are accused of depositing fake or stolen checks into straw bank accounts and then quickly withdrawing the money before the banks finished clearing the checks, the indictment says. The names of the banks that were victimized in the scheme were unavailable on Wednesday night.

Others in the scheme paid people to open new bank accounts or let them use their existing accounts and PIN numbers to carry out the fraud, according to prosecutors. In other cases, the indictment says, group members stole ATM cards and PINs to access the bank accounts.

It isn't always easy to tell if your personal information has been stolen for fraudulent purposes or your accounts have been compromised. Here are some common signs that you might be a victim of identity theft.

The indictment charges James Murray Willingham Jr., 23, Damonte Withers, 27, Deandre Howze, 23, Jeffrey Monteith, 22, Quadarius Thomas, 23, Laerek Williams, 25, and Nemiah Davis, 25, all of Charlotte, with multiple counts of conspiracy, bank fraud and wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft. Withers and Thomas also are charged with firearms-related offenses.

On Friday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said they have arrested all of the suspects except Monteith and Thomas.

Police urged anyone with information on the whereabouts of the pair to call 704-432-8477 to speak with a CMPD financial crimes unit detective or Crime Stoppers at 704-334-1600. Callers who provide information to Crime Stoppers that leads to an arrest are eligible for a cash reward.

James Murray Willingham Jr.
James Murray Willingham Jr. Mecklenburg County jail

The scheme lasted from February 2014 until three months ago and caused at least $235,000 in losses to financial institutions, the indictment says.

Damonte Withers
Damonte Withers Mecklenburg County jail Mecklenburg County jail

Bank fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud each carry a maximum 30 years in prison and $1 million fine. Wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy each carry a 20-year sentence and $250,000 fine.

Deandre Howze
Deandre Howze Mecklenburg County jail

Other charges include possession of device-making and document-making equipment, each carrying a maximum 15-year sentence and $250,000 fine; aggravated identity theft, which carries a mandatory two years in prison per count; and firearm possession, carrying a maximum 10-year sentence and $250,000 fine.

Nemiah Davis
Nemiah Davis Mecklenburg County jail

Laerek Williams
Laerek Williams Mecklenburg County jail

Quadarius Thomas
Quadarius Thomas Mecklenburg County jail

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak