Local businesses defrauded roughly $250,000 by organized scam operation. 

November 4, 2022

Local businesses defrauded roughly $250,000 by organized scam operation. 

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — Businesses in Oceana and Mason counties were defrauded a total of approximately $250,000 by a sophisticated scam operation that involved cashing fake payroll checks.

“There are three stores in Oceana that were impacted by a group of scammers that came up from Central America, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and the Dominican Republic,” said Det./Trooper Michael Cuevas of the Michigan State Police Fraud Unit. “And in their time between Oceana and Mason counties, they cashed out about a quarter of a million dollars in fraudulent checks between three or four banks.”

Impacted businesses in Oceana County include Carniceria La Conasupo in downtown Shelby, La Mexicana de Pancho on Oceana Drive in Hart and Wilson’s General Store in Mears, said Cuevas. In Mason County, West Shore Bank was victimized, said Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole. West Shore Bank was defrauded over $75,000 at branches on US 10 and in the City of Scottville, said Sheriff Cole.

Michigan Food Processor Co-op Inc. on Pere Marquette Highway was also a victim in the case, said Cole, but they did not suffer financially “They do their banking through West Shore, so West Shore effectively assumed the financial loss. This was initially reported on Sept. 23. “I think it was a well-organized group of individuals.”

“Towards the end of the agricultural season, migrant employees who do not live in Michigan will return to their home states — oftentimes Texas or other southern states. These subjects took advantage of that timing and ransacked these businesses. Due to the checks being altered and forged, the banks did not reimburse the businesses,” said Det. Cuevas.

La Mexicana de Pancho was defrauded of approximately $80,000 in the scam, and La Conasupo lost around $40,000. “These small businesses got hammered.

Homeland and MSP are conducting a joint investigation on these incidents due to the subjects having forged residential cards, passports, IDs and more. They are career criminals. They do these schemes everywhere.”

A total of 13 suspects are being investigated in connection to the case. 

“The checks that are presented are identical to the checks that are being payrolled from Arbre Farms, Indian Summer (and other agricultural businesses.) They’re places that have a large migrant population that goes up there for seasonal work. They either stole (a payroll check) or had an employee who is in on it present them one, and then they made hundreds of duplicates with different names on it. 

“The incident in Ludington was chaotic. They would enter and exit the bank one after the other. They would return to their vehicles; change their shirts; and go back inside to cash another fake check.” The crime occurred at the east office of West Shore Bank on US 10, he said.

Elizabeth Suarez manages Carniceria La Conasupo, a small family business owned by her brother, Marco Suarez. 

“We are half grocery and half restaurant. We’ve been here since 2015 trying to expand our business and serve the community of Shelby. We do a lot of services to help the Hispanic community and anybody else who would like to come. One of the services we offer is check cashing. We don’t announce it — as a form of protection. We also do wire transfers back home. Those two go hand in hand. We get a lot of customers from Mexico and from other states who come in for the agriculture during the beginning of the season and the end of the season. We will have buses load up of these seasonal workers coming in at once and cashing checks. 

“This organization studied very well — for who knows how long — the area. We don’t just cash any checks — we pick which companies we cash checks for. They studied that — they studied what checks are cashed where; when they’re cashed; and the amounts they’re cashed for.”

“They presented themselves as seasonal workers. They came in, Sept. 23, around 1 p.m. until 3 p.m., and they formed themselves in a way they wouldn’t be suspicious. They acted like any other seasonal worker. Each one of them presented a fraudulent check from $700 to over $800. The information on the checks that was fraudulent was really precise.” 

Suarez said the fake checks looked like genuine payroll checks from local agricultural businesses Michigan Freeze Pack and Indian Summer.

“This person (the ringleader) is organized and very intelligent. They came in different vehicles. They were well-rehearsed.

“I now know what to look for. This has been a very horrible experience, but we’re hoping that from now on going forward, we don’t get this anymore.”

Suarez expects a tough winter ahead for her family because of the scam. “In the summer, we all overwork ourselves as much as possible so that we have this revenue for the winter to tie us over. We hoard — like a bear that’s ready to go into hibernation. I don’t know if winter is going to hold us over.”

The grocery store portion of the business is open year-round except over Christmas, and the restaurant portion closes during the month of January, she said.

“It has been a huge strain. I don’t have the amounts that I sought to have for the winter. At this point, we’re looking over our options to see if we will see another summer.”

Her parents both work at the business. “Our father helps us even after attending four hours of dialysis for kidney failure.”

Suarez’s family was contacted by the bank the following Monday that they had been scammed. “It was devastating.” She feels that there is a local connection to the crime ring. 

If the suspects are caught, the case would ultimately be prosecuted in federal court. 

Suspects’ photos are from surveillance video taken at the West Shore Bank’s east office on US 10 in Mason County.

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