Three arrested in check fraud scheme

by Tom Beck and Kristin Holmes
Posted 7/26/22

Three Philadelphia-area men have been arrested and charged in connection with a scheme to steal checks from the U.S. Postal Service, fraudulently alter them and deposit more than $200,000 in personal …

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Three arrested in check fraud scheme


Three Philadelphia-area men have been arrested and charged in connection with a scheme to steal checks from the U.S. Postal Service, fraudulently alter them and deposit more than $200,000 in personal accounts.

Naod Tsegay, 22, of Collingdale, and Fode Bangoura, 20, and Zyier Williams, 19, both of Philadelphia, have been charged with bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, possession of stolen United States Postal Service (USPS) keys, and possession of stolen mail, U.S. Attorney, Jacqueline C. Romero announced Monday in a press release.

Tsegay and his co-defendants recruited people between March and June of 2021 to provide their bank account and debit card information, and then used those recruits’ bank accounts to deposit checks that had been stolen from blue USPS collection boxes located throughout the region. 

According to the indictment, the stolen checks were altered by changing the designated payees and increasing the dollar amount of the checks, often by several thousand dollars. Tsegay deposited the checks in the recruits’ bank accounts and withdrew or attempted to withdraw the funds.

When he was arrested, Tsegay was found with dozens of stolen checks and money orders that had been deposited in USPS mailboxes and two Arrow keys used by postal employees to access blue collection boxes.

If convicted, the defendants face mandatory terms of imprisonment and a fine of at least $1 million.

“It looks like they’re actually doing something about this,” said Len Byron, a Chestnut Hill Local reader who reached out to the paper earlier this month to report stolen checks. “Maybe people will feel a little bit safer about writing checks now. I started doing online banking and it’s much easier to tell you the truth, but I can see if people don’t have a computer, this can be a sigh of relief for them. That’s really good.”

The arrests come after at least 21 people reached out to the Local over the last several months to report that their checks had been stolen and washed. On Tuesday, June 19, a blue mailbox in front of the Chestnut Hill Post Office on Germantown Avenue was discovered open and unlocked.

Local reader David Richardson, who reached out to the paper about his stolen checks about the same time as Byron, said he’d continue to mail his checks outside of the city in Lafayette Hill for a while to be safe. Still, he’s happy about the arrests.

“That’s great news,” he said after hearing about the arrests. “It makes you rest a little bit easier.”

Postal Inspector George Clark, of the Philadelphia Division of the Postal Inspection Service, told the Local that the arrests of Tsegay, Bangoura and Williams “do not represent the end of ongoing investigations into mail theft.

“These cases take time and a lot of coordination between multiple law enforcement agencies, including local, state and federal agencies, in developing evidence that supports criminal charges,” he added. 

Clark encouraged readers to continue putting mail in blue collection boxes before the last pick up time and finding alternative mailing locations such as mailing stores, post offices, work, and other locations that have blue collection boxes inside or that have regularly scheduled pickup from the post office.

Clark advised that any residents who have mailed items in the open and unlocked Germantown Avenue mailbox on the evening of Monday, July, 18, “might want to monitor their checks. If they are inclined, and out of an abundance of caution, they might want to notify their banks, cancel the checks, and resend new ones.”

Last week, three readers, all of whom asked that the Local not reveal their names, reported that their checks had been stolen. One of them, a Wyndmoor resident, mailed a check for $9,978, in the mailbox located in front of the Chestnut Hill post office on Germantown Avenue. The check, to Long & Foster, was for a vacation house rental on Dec. 26. According to the source, her husband noticed the check was stolen and washed when he saw a picture of it on their online banking account with their bank, PNC.

The second source said she wrote two checks from separate accounts - one from Wells Fargo and another from the University of Pennsylvania Credit Union - to pay a single credit card payment. Both checks were mailed in the same envelope from the mailbox just outside of the Market Square post office on June 19.

The checks were cashed two days later, on June 21, but the source didn’t notice anything was wrong until June 30, when she was on the phone with her bank trying to set up an online account with her credit card. 

“I called and they told me what the balance was and it was an outrageous amount,” said the source. The source filed a police report that day.

The third source, a Chestnut Hill resident, mailed four checks on July 14 either from the mailbox on Willow Grove Avenue near the Wyndmoor train station or mailbox on St. Martin’s Lane near the Philadelphia Cricket Club. She was unsure about which mailbox. On July 21, she got a phone call from her bank, Bank of America, notifying her that somebody had tried to cash two suspicious looking checks from her account. They told her the name on the check, Sinai Parker.

“I said I’ve definitely never heard of that person before,” she told the Local. 

The source told the Local the checks were meant to go to a landscaping company and a vacation rental company in South Carolina. A picture of one of the checks, which was made out for $2,537.50, reveals radically different handwriting on the payee line. 

“I’m going to avoid mailing checks at all costs,” she said. “What a pain.”

The source ended up having the bank freeze the accounts, so the money was never lost. She closed out her account at her bank’s recommendation. She hasn’t yet filed a police report, but plans to file one.

In a previous statement, Philadelphia Division Postal Inspector George Clark told the Local that the Postal Inspection Service is “doing everything in its power to combat these crimes.”

The 2021 United States Postal Inspection Service annual report, which Clark provided to the Local, reveals some of the repercussions thieves can expect if they’re caught stealing mail.

Houston resident Valnica Strong-Garner was given a 38-month prison sentence and five years probation after her fifth time being arrested for mail theft in January of last year, according to the report. She had most recently used white out to erase “U.S. Department of Treasury” on a tax check mailed by a resident of Valley Grande, Ala. She later cashed the check at a local grocery store.