Police warn about ‘Operation Homeless’ Scheme

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Middle Tennessee — Mark Gamboa owns three Firehouse Sub restaurants in Middle Tennessee so he ends up mailing a lot of checks each week.

“We send them to vendors and to employees,” said Gamboa.

Gamboa used to put those checks in an unlocked mailbox until he fell victim to what police and bank employees now call “Operation Homeless.”

“Over a three-day period about $20,000 in checks were written,” said Gamboa.

Police said thieves look for those red flags on mailboxes, then steal checks from inside and use the information on them to create their own fake checks.

“They may issue five, 10 or 20 checks. It’s according to how many they can get before your bank can determine that your account has been compromised,” said Metro Police Fraud Sgt. Michael Warren.

Then, investigators said, the thieves recruit members of Nashville’s homeless community, write the checks out to them and pay them to cash them.

So when police make an arrest like they did in Gamboa’s case, they’re just charging the middleman and not getting to the root of the problem.

“We’re just arresting the back end of it and we’re just putting a band-aid on a bullet hole,” said Warren.

Warren said Metro now investigates about 1,000 cases involving stolen or counterfeit checks each year, a disturbing statistic that has victims like Gamboa making changes.

“Nothing goes in the mailbox. We either take it straight to the post office or now we do auto draws for all of our vendors,” said Gamboa.

Investigators said you should do the same because not treating a check just like you would cash is a risk you can no longer afford to take.

“Would you hand all of your personal information to a stranger: your name, your address, your phone number, your checking account number, your bank’s routing number, and your driver’s license number every time you issue a check to a vendor? That’s what you’re disclosing and you’re just hoping it doesn’t fall in the wrong hands,” said Warren.

Police recommend using post offices to send checks and paying wirelessly when possible. They said people should check their bank statements often and check to make sure the last check in their checkbook remains since, often, criminals will steal that knowing victims will not notice that it is missing.

If your account is compromised you should contact your bank immediately and fill out a police report.

Victims have 30 days to report the problem to their banks if they want to be reimbursed.