Baltimore Fraudster Sentenced to over 12 Years in Decades -Long Scheme to Steal Identity Information and Cash Hundreds of Stolen Checks

Conspirators Stole an MVA Photo-Taking Machine, and Cut Telephone Lines at Homes from Which Thousands of Pieces of Residential Mail Were Stolen

April 14, 2009

Baltimore, Maryland - U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz sentenced Joseph Lawrence, age 44, of Baltimore, today to 154 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and possession of stolen mail in connection with an identity theft scheme used to cash at least over $400,000 in stolen checks in just the last year of the decades-long scheme, announced United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein.

According to his plea agreement, from the early 1980s until May 2008, Lawrence and other associates targeted neighborhoods with outdoor mail boxes to obtain thousands of pieces of stolen mail, including identity information, checks and credit cards. They would approach an outdoor mail box with advertising circulars that they would place into the receptacle while simultaneously taking out mail.

Once the mail was stolen, Lawrence and others would take photos of themselves and others. In the early years of the scheme, they used a photograph-taking machine that was stolen from a Motor Vehicles Administration office by an associate. They created thousands of fraudulent identifications including social security cards, identifications from federal and state agencies and driver’s licenses. They called check issuing companies posing as legitimate check cashing establishments and requested social security numbers for the rightful payees of the checks that they had stolen. They also cut telephone lines of residences from which they had stolen mail to prevent a fraud loss or check verification call.

After an identification card was made, Lawrence and his associates would test the individual for whom the fraudulent identification was made to make certain that he/she was familiar with the rightful payee’s information in order to avoid detection. To ensure the impersonation was successful, the co-conspirators would use costumes, including medical scrubs, wheelchairs, canes, suits, hats and sunglasses. If the check was a higher dollar amount, the presenter might wear a suit. After use, the costumes were discarded to avoid detection. The co-conspirators preferred to cash the stolen checks at check cashing establishments that did not take a photograph of the check presenter. In the early years of this scheme, these establishments were plentiful and Lawrence and his associates cashed thousands of checks with ease. As technology improved, Lawrence and others began to target more grocery stores and liquor stores.

At the time of his arrest on May 2, 2008, law enforcement recovered from a motel room Lawrence shared with co-conspirator Tara Wagner, 11 stolen checks sent by institutions including the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Child Support Enforcement Administration, the Department of the U.S. Treasury, and the Comptroller of Maryland; a FedEx Kinko’s copy card; photocopies of identification cards from the State of Maryland, Baltimore City Department of Social Services, Baltimore City Community College, Security Guard Certification, MVA, and the Social Security Administration; supplies to create false identification cards, including glue sticks, passport size photos of individuals including Racks, a razor blade, colored pencils, laminating paper and a typewriter; and more than 30 stolen Netflix DVD’s.

Over the course of the scheme, Lawrence and his coconspirators cashed dozens of checks of $5,000 or more, and hundreds of checks of $1,500 or more. Lawrence is responsible for at least $400,000 in loss based on his participation in the scheme in just one year.

Maurice Racks, age 54, of Baltimore, Maryland, was sentenced on April 10, 2009, to 164 months in prison for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and social security fraud. Loquann Johnson, age 53, of Baltimore, pleaded guilty to the conspiracy and aggravated identity theft and was sentenced on January 23, 2009 to 134 months in prison. Tara Wagner, age 38, of Baltimore, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and possession of stolen mail in the same scheme and is scheduled to be sentenced June 5, 2009 at 11:00 a.m.

United States Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein thanked the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Social Security Administration - Office of Inspector General and the Baltimore County Police Economic Crimes Unit for their investigative work. Mr. Rosenstein commended Assistant United States Attorney Solette A. Magnelli, who prosecuted the case.



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