Two men who were arrested in Warren County in connection with a cross-country check scam that cost banks and businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars have been indicted by a federal grand jury on seven felony charges.
Alphonso L. Howard Jr., 28, and Javonte J. Johnson, 22, both of Decatur, were arrested by State Police in Queensbury in September, as investigators began to unravel a complex scheme that allegedly included theft of mail, production of fake checks and recruitment of local residents to cash them.
A federal grand jury indicted them this week on counts of bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Fake checks were cashed in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties as well as other counties around upstate New York and Vermont, resulting in a massive state and federal investigation. Johnson has also been indicted on felony charges for at least one check case in Jefferson County as well.
Authorities believe the duo were part of a Georgia-based ring that had operated similar schemes elsewhere in the country for years.
Police said the two men victimized at least three businesses in Queensbury and others in Saratoga County by going through their mailboxes at night, looking for checks that had been put in the mail to be picked up the next day.
When they found checks, they took the account and routing numbers from them to produce new, fake checks with legitimate bank information, using computer equipment and a printer they had with them at a Queensbury motel they used as a base of operations.
Police said they then went to stores in the region, such as Cumberland Farms and Walmart, to recruit local residents to take the checks to banks, going as far as to make fake identification for them. They enticed accomplices by offering a cut of the money they received, and the two Georgia men found a number of people willing to assist them.
Authorities have dubbed the case “Operation Homeless” because the men targeted down-and-out people who could be lured by a quick payday. One man allegedly cashed 11 checks.
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Authorities said they got a break in the case in September when one of the men who cashed a check went to Glens Falls Police, believing he had been involved in a crime. That led to the investigation that resulted in the arrest of Howard and Johnson on felony counts of grand larceny, attempted grand larceny and criminal possession of a forged instrument in Queensbury, police said.
Those charges have since been superseded by the federal indictment.
Computer equipment and nearly $20,000 in cash was seized from their hotel room. The federal indictment alleges their fraud in upstate New York amounted to at least $164,077.
Police also found evidence that the men had been involved in similar check fraud cases in Florida, Wisconsin and South Dakota in the months prior to their arrests.
Investigators have identified a number of people from around the region who cashed checks for the men, and many of them have agreed to cooperate in the case.
Howard’s lawyer, James Hyde, said he had no comment on the case as of Friday. No lawyer was listed in federal court records for Johnson.
The duo face up to 30 years in state prison if convicted. Johnson is in Jefferson County Jail, Howard in an unspecified jail.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Barnett, who is prosecuting the case, said arraignment dates were pending.
State Police from the Queensbury and Granville stations; the FBI; district attorney’s offices in Saratoga and Warren counties; the Burlington, Vermont Police Department; Vermont State Police; and the Glens Falls Police Department have been involved with the local investigation.