Advocates for the homeless and people with substance use disorder are calling it deplorable: a scam police in Barre, Vermont say uses members of those vulnerable populations to rip off businesses—hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time.
“It likely crosses state lines with the people who have actually masterminded this crime,” Barre Police Detective James Pontbriand told necn.
Pontbriand said criminals are stealing legit business checks—possibly by swiping mail—then copying them and changing the payee and the amount.
Then, the investigator said the scammers recruit a homeless person or someone battling opioid use disorder to cash the phony checks for them.
Those vulnerable people may never know who they’re working for—just getting a small cut or drugs in exchange—but if they’re caught inside the bank, the recruiter could simply abandon them and take off; no names given.
Pontbriand described the scam as complicated and noted that it likely has a nexus to multi-state drug dealing.
Pontbriand said the scheme appears to have been on the increase in recent weeks across Vermont, adding that financial institutions across the state have been ripped off to the tune of about $36,000 in recent weeks.
Advocates for low-income people, the homeless, and Vermonters battling substance use disorder were dismayed to hear about the way those populations may be recruited by people taking advantage of them.
“It’s absolutely deplorable,” Mary Moulton of Washington County Mental Health Services said of the details of the scam as explained by police. “To have drug dealers preying upon them in this manner is reprehensible.”
Moulton said via phone that while she and her colleagues were not familiar with the scheme until Barre police and necn brought it to the community’s attention, she noted that low-income people have been taken advantage of by drug dealers in other ways—such as using their residences as centers for local drug distribution.
“Whoever these criminals are, they aren’t about to incriminate themselves—they’ll find some desperate people to do their dirty work for them,” noted Marcia Horn, whom necn informed about the scam on a Barre sidewalk near several banks and credit unions. “It’s very sad.”
“These people bear responsibility and are a part of it, absolutely,” Pontbriand said of the homeless people or individuals with substance use disorder recruited to be a part of the scam. “But we would prefer to catch the people concocting this whole thing and, behind the scenes, pulling the strings.”
Rachel Feldman with the Vermont State Employees Credit Union joined the police in urging account holders of any bank or credit union to closely monitor their accounts online.
Businesses or individuals may want to consider bringing mail containing checks directly to the post office rather than leaving the documents in your box to be picked up, Feldman and Barre police suggested.
Feldman said VSECU, along with other Vermont financial institutions, have seen the type of activity Pontbriand described.
“If you suspect you may have been targeted, or mail might be missing from your mailbox, immediately call your financial institution or call the Postmaster General,” Feldman advised.
Barre police said they’re working with federal investigators and other local departments to gather information on the scam which has popped up in several Vermont counties.
Pontbriand said arrest warrants have been issued for Korey Koch and Eugene Streeter, both from the Chittenden County area. The investigator said those suspects were recently recorded on Barre bank surveillance cameras cashing altered checks and indicated he hopes their arrests could help shut down the scammers.