FDLE makes arrests in scheme to steal money from churches
Throughout the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, members were rightly praised for their faithful giving during the COVID-19 pandemic. But authorities say criminals hijacked some of that goodwill in a scheme to steal donation checks and send the money overseas.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced the arrest of four people who allegedly stole more than $740,000 from 636 churches and religious schools around the country, including 355 in Florida.
Some of the victimized churches are United Methodist congregations.
Additionally, warrants were issued for two more people in what the FDLE called "Operation Thou Shalt Not Steal."
"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 FDLE investigation began in December 2020 after Cape Coral Police Department identified 24 victim churches within Lee County plus additional victims outside their jurisdiction.
According to the FDLE, the suspects operated out of Orlando but traveled throughout Florida and the United States, sometimes to as many as 85 churches a day to steal donation checks from church mailboxes.
Many churches were victimized multiple times.
The group, comprised of Florida-based Romanian nationals, had numerous bank accounts it used to deposit the checks and then used ATMs to withdraw cash as soon as they cleared.
Officials said the accused used the money to buy cars, food, and other items. They also sent large amounts of money back to Romania.
The Florida Conference takes this issue seriously and offered several suggestions for members and churches to safeguard their donations.
"Unfortunately, churches are not exempt from these types of crimes," said LaNita Battles, Director of the Conference Department For Ministry Protection. Crimes that occur in the world at large, regrettably, also sometimes happen in and to churches.
"These simple tips will help protect your church from becoming a victim of mail theft."
They recommend that no one leaves items in the mailbox overnight and that churches pick up the mail promptly after delivery.
No one should send cash in the mail.
Also, many churches offer secure online options for giving.
"Churches depend on donations from generous members of the community to operate and serve those in need," Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said.
"It is despicable that this crime ring would exploit the selfless acts of kindness displayed through these donations for selfish greed."
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for FLUMC.org