By Jason A. Smith
McDonough Police are attempting to identify members of an alleged fraud ring, who have reportedly forged and cashed checks stolen from area mailboxes.
Authorities said they became aware of the case when a checking account was compromised at McDonough City Hall. An Atlanta woman, 26-year-old Constance Hughes, has been charged with financial identity fraud in that case.
McDonough Police Chief Preston Dorsey said authorities are trying to track down other individuals, who may be "ringleaders" in the fraud scheme.
"This is a much larger operation than just Constance Hughes," said Dorsey. "She was just one small cog in this wheel. She has no idea who the people she was dealing with [are]. She was just asked to go cash these checks, for a certain percentage of the checks that she cashed."
Hughes' arrest stems from an incident on March 24, at McDonough City Hall. A McDonough police detective said Bonnie Kline, a finance director for the city, discovered the fraud. "She was doing a routine audit of the city's accounts, and discovered there was a check that was written on the account that was not issued by the city," said the detective. "We did some background checking, and found the check was taken from a mailbox somewhere on the north side of Atlanta. It had been sent to one of the businesses that the city conducts business with, as payment."
The detective added that the check was duplicated, along with a city account number and forged signatures in the name of Constance Hughes.
"She ... cashed that check at a bank branch in Union City, Ga., and we found out about it the next day," he added. Hughes was arrested March 27, at a MARTA station in Atlanta, according to McDonough police, and was taken into custody and interviewed.
"She confessed to taking part in this identity fraud-forgery scheme," the detective said.
McDonough police said in addition to the frauds allegedly committed by Hughes in Henry County, the suspect has been connected to similar cases in Gwinnett County.
"Through the course of the investigation, we were able to make contact with other financial institutions that were affected, and the Duluth Police Department also took a warrant out on her, based on her cashing some forged checks in their city as well," the detective added.
"She was part of a ring that operates around the metro Atlanta area. Basically, what they do is, they recruit people from the Atlanta area, and take them out to the suburbs to cash forged checks."
Police believe the fraud ring has a "hierarchy and a structure" similar to that of a legitimate business, but operates on secrecy. "A lot of the time when you make contact with the person that's actually cashing a check, they will not be familiar with other people that are a part of the organization," the investigating detective said.
According to police, Hughes cashed approximately 10 checks for the organization, in a two-week period.
The suspect appeared in Henry County Magistrate Court March 29, represented by the Public Defender's Office. Judge Robert Godwin bound her charge over to Superior Court. She was being held in the Henry County Jail Tuesday, on $7,500 bond.An investigating officer said even if Hughes makes bond in Henry, she will be transferred to Gwinnett County to answer charges in the Duluth case.
The Hughes case, the detective said, should serve as a warning to business owners and residents, to monitor their bank accounts closely. "Keep a daily check on your accounts online," he said. "That way you can know whether or not you've been compromised, because the quicker that information is transmitted to law enforcement, it definitely helps with taking a person into custody."
Residents can also go to the Federal Trade Commission's web site, if they suspect they have been victimized by identity fraud, police said.