HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — A Holland man has been arrested for allegedly pulling off a scheme to turn stolen mail into cash.
Zachary Stephen Thomas, 32, was arrested last weekend and charged with theft of United States mail and bank fraud.
Thomas caught the attention of Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office detectives late last year after allegedly attempting a series of fraudulent bank transactions, like making ATM deposits with empty envelopes.
In December 2015, he began stealing mail from the mailboxes of Holland residents, according to an affidavit unsealed in federal court Monday. Investigators said he would routinely pilfer bank account checks and credit card convenience checks mailed to Holland area residents.
“He would take their checks, either write them to himself or obtain identification from these mail boxes, then fill out these particular checks,” Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Bennett explained.
Thomas would then deposit the checks in his own bank account, then withdraw the cash from his bank’s ATM before the bank discovered the checks were bogus, the complaint alleges.
According to the affidavit, a Holland Township Chase Bank employee contacted an Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office detective on March 17 about Thomas trying to cash a bogus check drawn on the account of a woman who didn’t even know him.
Deputies arrested Thomas at the bank on an outstanding warrant connected to the previous bad bank transactions.
After allegedly spotting marijuana in his vehicle, authorities searched the vehicle and found a backpack containing other people’s mail and a checkbook for the alleged victim, the criminal complaint states. Authorities searched Thomas’ Holland apartment and found more people’s mail and another checkbook in the alleged victim’s name, a special agent said in the criminal complaint.
After being questioned, Thomas was released on bond.
Less than two weeks later, investigators were contacted by another Holland resident who said a rental check was stolen from his mailbox. The bank said someone tried to cash the check using a bank account in Thomas’s name, according to the court report.
Detectives again searched Thomas’ apartment and found more stolen mail belonging to Ottawa County residents, including tax documents, personal background checks and checks drawn on accounts of others, according to the affidavit.
ALLEGED ACCOMPLICE SAYS THOMAS TUTORED HIM IN THEFT
During the first questioning, Thomas insisted he was working alone, the detective said in the criminal complaint. However, on April 26, police in Berrien County’s Coloma Township arrested another man with a backpack full of stolen mail, the affidavit states.
Authorities said that suspect told them he had stolen the mail under Thomas’ direction. He said Thomas had instructed him how to steal mail on a Saturday night and Sunday morning, allegedly telling him the best areas in the Holland area to steal from and what to look for when he opened a mail box.
The unnamed suspect directed authorities to a dumpster in Saugatuck, where he had thrown away approximately 1,000 pieces of mail belonging to Holland-area residents, the criminal complaint states.
Authorities said they found text messages on the second suspect’s phone with Thomas that corroborated his claims. In the text messages, Thomas also allegedly admitted to stealing mail and cashing strangers’ checks.
“It was pretty apparent that this individual (Thomas) had been from the Muskegon area down as far as Benton Harbor and beyond accomplishing or attempting to accomplish these check cashing scams,” Capt. Bennett said.
Thomas, who remains in custody of the U.S. Marshals, is expected back in a Grand Rapids courtroom on May 19. The bank fraud charges carry a sentence of up to 30 years in prison; mail theft comes with a prison sentence of up to five years.
“Theft of the mail, especially theft of financial documents and personal information, can have devastating consequences for the residents of this district,” U.S. Attorney Pat Miles said in a statement announcing charges. “Those who choose to engage in this conduct will be held fully accountable for their actions.”
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Most victims of Thomas’ alleged scheme were covered by their bank’s fraud protection, but there were still calls and paperwork involved to get everything straightened out.
Bennett said there are ways to avoid this kind of headache, like never leaving outgoing mail in your mail box, installing a locking mail box for incoming mail or having your mail delivered to work. You could also simply watch for the letter carrier.
“Most people know when their mail comes. If you’re able to do that, check it. A trusted neighbor could check the mail box,” Bennett suggested.
And if you suspect you have missing mail, check your bank accounts for any fraudulent activity.