A Florida-based group of Romanian nationals stole $740,000 from hundreds of churches by taking donation checks from their mailboxes and cashing them, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Wednesday.
Four people were arrested and two others are wanted in what authorities are calling “Operation Thou Shalt Not Steal.”
The group was based in Orlando, but traveled throughout Florida and other states stealing checks, investigators said. In all, authorities identified 636 churches that were victims, including 355 in Florida.
“This low-tech yet well-organized effort to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of mailed-in charitable donations — at a time when donations may have been most needed — has been stopped," FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said in a news release.
The group had numerous bank accounts it used to deposit the checks and then used ATMs to withdraw cash as soon as they cleared.
Arrested Wednesday were Ionut Raducan, 33; Marius Dumitru, 27; Marius Dumitru, 34; and Panait Dumitru, 32. Each was charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, racketeering, grand theft, unlawful possession of personal identification information and money laundering.
All were being held in the Orange County jail. Jail records didn't list a lawyer for the men. Authorities are still searching for Catalin Trandafir, 45, and Simona Trandafir, 39, who face the same charges.
The investigation began last December after Cape Coral police determined 24 Lee County churches were victims. Authorities said the group spent the money on cars, food and clothing and made high-value wire transfers to Romania.
Attorney General Ashley Moody's Office of Statewide Prosecution will prosecute the case.
“Churches depend on donations from generous members of the community to operate and serve those in need. It is despicable that this crime ring would exploit the selfless acts of kindness displayed through these donations for selfish greed," Moody said in a news release.