Scam preys on homeless

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Don Thompson, executive director of the Harry Tompson Center in New Orleans, said Monday that con artists have been taking advantage of the homeless. Here he passes on the news to some of the center's clients.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Don Thompson, executive director of the Harry Tompson Center in New Orleans, said Monday that con artists have been taking advantage of the homeless. Here he passes on the news to some of the center's clients.

Don Thompson has had enough of the exploitation.

For months now, the executive director of the Harry Tompson Center, a day center here for the homeless, has run off two men who arrive every so often to seek out people who unknowingly help them carry out schemes used to defraud banks and retailers.

It all apparently began sometime during the spring and picked up momentum after Hurricane Isaac, Thompson said. Now, authorities here and in Baton Rouge are trying to identify the men responsible, who appear to have expanded their operation from the Crescent City to the capital city.

New Orleans police spokeswoman Remi Braden said she would neither confirm nor deny any investigation into the matter.

Detectives with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office Financial Crimes Division began receiving complaints sometime this summer of counterfeit checks being cashed at Baton Rouge banks, sheriff’s spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said. Other state and federal agencies are investigating the scheme as well, she said.

Hicks said the Sheriff’s Office has not yet confirmed if the cases in East Baton Rouge Parish are tied to New Orleans, but said that it is a possibility.

The crimes in the New Orleans area each seem to begin when the same two men arrive at the Tompson Center.

For a while the men showed up every day. They’ve appeared less often recently but returned on Monday, Thompson said.

They always arrive by car during the morning or lunch rushes to hide in plain sight in the hustle and bustle of the crowd, Thompson said. While one man stays in the car — a different one each time — the other, dressed casually to blend in with the crowd, gets out and approaches homeless men at the center to ask if they have identification.

If the homeless person does have ID, the men ask him to go with them to a Walmart or Home Depot to return merchandise and collect the refund money, or to turn in scrap metal, which also nets a payment. There have been times more recently when the homeless people have been asked to cash checks worth several thousand dollars, Thompson said, something that also is happening in Baton Rouge.

Banks in New Orleans are onto the scheme, likely prompting the con men to head to Baton Rouge to complete the action, Thompson said.

In each instance, an ID is required for the transaction. If the man is successful, he gets a cut of the money, Thompson said; if the man’s caught, he’s left to face the criminal charges on his own.

Thompson said he knows of at least six people who have been ensnared in the scam. Two did time, two remain in jail as they await trial, and two others remain on the run.

“They’ve cased us enough to know when we’re busy, and that’s when they come,” Thompson said.

The constant visits, though, have been reciprocal and have made the men familiar to Thompson and his staff. Just yesterday he confronted them for yet another time when they arrived.

“They were nonplussed about it,” he said. “I told them again ‘You’re not wanted here.’ I told them I’d call the NOPD, but that’s just a bluff. They’re not going to come.”

While he said the NOPD’s 1st District took his call and listened to his concerns and descriptions of the men, officers told him they could not do anything unless the men are caught in the act.

Renee Blanche, director of development at Ozanam Inn in New Orleans’ Central Business District, said those who stay at her shelter have heard about the scam, and some have been approached at locations such as nearby Lafayette Square and under the Pontchartrain Expressway overpass. No one has approached anyone at the shelter, she said.

Detectives in East Baton Rouge Parish noticed that in all the cases they’ve investigated, stolen business checks were being counterfeited and cashed by random people, Hicks said. Detectives have found that legitimate checks are being stolen from mailboxes prior to the payees receiving them, Hicks said.

Investigators in East Baton Rouge have arrested about 10 people so far and have active warrants for about 10 to 15 more, Hicks said. She could not confirm if the people were all tied to one scheme.

Some of the suspects arrested told detectives that people were actively recruiting homeless people with valid Louisiana identification cards to cash the counterfeit checks in exchange for a small cash payment, Hicks said.

The homeless men told detectives they are willing participants in the act and are in need of money, Hicks said.

The scam, she noted, is not new. “It’s been coming and going for years,” Hicks said.

The Baton Rouge Police Department has not investigated any check counterfeiting schemes involving homeless people, police spokesman Cpl. Tommy Stubbs said.

Hicks asked anyone with information regarding this investigation to contact Crime Stoppers at (225) 344-STOP or the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office at (225) 389-5009.

Randy Nichols, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, said one client at his shelter was picked up in the scam on Friday.

Nichols said a group of men were driving around Convention and 17th streets when they found a group of homeless men and asked them if they wanted to do some work for money.

After the homeless men said yes, the men in the car asked for the homeless men’s personal information, saying they needed it to pay them, Nichols said.

The men in the car said they would go drop off supplies for a construction job but instead drove to a Capital One bank, Nichols said.

One of the homeless men had a Capital One bank account, so he was asked to cash a counterfeit check worth $1,600, Nichols said.

The men then drove to another Capital One branch in Baton Rouge and tried to get the homeless man to do the same thing. However, that check was not cashed immediately because the account had been flagged, Nichols said

At that point, the homeless man became worried he would get in trouble. He approached Capital Area Alliance officials on Monday and told them of the scheme, Nichols said.

“He came in very upset this morning in a panic,” Nichols said. “He was afraid that he was going to get accused of something. ... He was definitely taken advantage of.”

Nichols said the Friday incident is the only situation involving a homeless counterfeit check scheme he has heard of.

Michael Acaldo, chief executive officer of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Baton Rouge, said no one is aware of any clients at the Catholic charity’s homeless shelter being taken advantage of in the scheme.

Acaldo did say there’s a small percentage of the population that takes advantage of people living in desperate situations, such as the homeless.

“It’s shocking to me that somebody would do that to another human being,” Acaldo said.

Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit homelessness collaborative, said she only recently heard of the check-cashing and merchandise-return scams. She agreed, though, that it’s not uncommon for homeless people to be used as pawns.

“How low can you go to prey on the neediest of people?” she said.

As for Thompson, he said he’s just ready for the visits to stop so the homeless who use his center can stay there in peace.

“We’re guarded about this space. This is their sanctuary,” he said. “We just want them to leave our guys alone.”