Authorities in Georgia have reportedly brought down a ring of perpetrators accused of stealing approximately $1.5 million from churches in 14 states.
The Fayette County Sheriff's Office recently announced the arrested of three suspects from Houston, Texas, involved in a ring of as many as 17 individuals alleged to have stolen donations from church mailboxes.
According to Fox 5 Atlanta, the ring operated out of Texas, with 36 Fayette County churches being robbed of around $154,000 in checks combined. The checks were deposited at Houston-area ATMs.
The ring was known to have traveled across the country to steal donation checks from church mailboxes during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person worship would have been suspended or limited. The group robbed church mailboxes across the Midwest, Southeast and California.
Fayette County Sheriff Barry Babb said many people, especially the elderly, were mailing their checks to churches during the pandemic.
"Probably some of these churches might not have even been open during that time and these checks were piling up," he told Fox 5. "So they knew that when they hit a mailbox, which most of these cases these mailboxes were not secure mailboxes, they were able to take the mail."
Authorities are continuing to search for three additional suspects. Meanwhile, some local congregations have started locking their mailboxes.
Babb encouraged churches to offer online options for donations and tithes to minimize the risk of theft.
In recent years, police across the United States have busted groups in similar robberies.
Last year, Florida authorities arrested four individuals from a group of six who stole approximately $740,000 of donations from church mailboxes.
According to police, the group stole over 1,500 checks from 636 churches, operating out of Orlando and hitting congregations in Florida and elsewhere. They would then wire the money to Romania, their native country.
"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," Commissioner Rick Swearingen of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said in a statement last year.
Last November, Mateus Vaduva of Baltimore, Maryland, pled guilty to being one of seven individuals who, from 2018 to 2021, stole over 3,000 donation checks from religious institutions in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina, totaling approximately $1.3 million.
Vaduva and his peers "conducted the thefts by driving to roadside mailboxes of churches and other religious institutions and removing the mail, specifically targeting donation checks," the U.S. Attorney's Office in Maryland announced in a statement.
"As part of the scheme to defraud, Vaduva and other co-conspirators fraudulently opened bank accounts at victim financial institutions under false identities," stated the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"Conspiracy members often opened fictitious bank accounts with the aid of a conspiracy member that was an employee at one of the victim financial institutions."