Homeless often recruited for Ga. fraud rings

ATHENS, Ga. --- Athens-Clarke police say they are investigating a fraud ring that often recruits homeless people to do its dirty work.

They say even the drivers who are taking homeless people from bank to bank in Athens and other communities don't know who they're working for.

Michail Korsunskiy nearly became one of the ring's check fraud victims on March 11 but was saved by an observant bank teller.

The teller's manager called police, and they arrested the homeless patsy who was working for the fraud ring and trying to cash a fake check from Korsunskiy's Athens business.

The ring has swindled local businesses for years.

"The drivers get the checks from distributors, so the people who are printing the checks have a lot of layers around them," said Athens-Clarke police Detective Beverly Russell, a Financial Crimes Unit investigator who has worked check fraud cases for 10 years.

"The Secret Service and the FBI even set up a task force in Atlanta, and they still haven't been able to crack them," Russell said.

Three or four check fraud rings are based in Atlanta, and drivers often spend days on the road with their homeless accomplices, even staying in motels, she said.

The check that a homeless man tried to cash this month at an Athens First Bank & Trust branch on Atlanta Highway appeared to be a legitimate business check.

It bore the name of Korsunskiy's business, Maria Bella, and even the owner's signature.

"The check was the same color and looked very similar to mine," Korsunskiy said. "Even the signature was very similar to mine."

The man who tried to cash the check - made out for $1,573.91 - was abandoned by his driver.

Fraud ring drivers linger and watch to see if their accomplices successfully cash the check; if the police show up, they drive off, police said.

Russell doesn't know how the forgers made the Maria Bella check, but she said that people who work for fraud rings sometimes steal checks from the mail and even work for a company long enough to earn a legitimate paycheck.

Thieves have become so sophisticated that keen-eyed tellers who know their customers are the best defense.

"The critical thing is to know your local customers, notice their patterns, know when people get paid, do they come in as a group on payday or one at a time, is someone acting nervous?" said Phil Bettendorf, a senior vice president at Athens First.

"You try to build relationships with customers so they're not just an account number, and when you get to know them you can spot (fraud)," Bettendorf said.

"Are we going to catch everyone? Of course not, but we're going to try to mitigate the problem," he said.

Korsunskiy's company has done business at the same First Athens branch for a decade, and he appreciated the teller's diligence.

"Every day I come to this bank," Korsunskiy said. "I know (the teller), and this girl knows my signature and knows everything about my workers. I am very happy with her."