Episode 12: The Big Money Check Scam
So… I last left off in New York, having helped my Lucchese crew boss, Veto, muscle some Dominicans out of the Brooklyn heroin market. That whole episode worked out well for Veto and his higher-ups. They were making millions from the heroin trade in Brooklyn and other parts of New York City. But us low-level grunts, unfortunately, were pretty much left to fend for ourselves when it came to hustling and making a living. Of course, there were always petty jobs, like running some dope or cash across town for a few bucks. Maybe host a dice or poker game here or there. Rob a pimp or dope dealer. Shakedown a store owner. Track down some vig. Whatever. Same shit I did back home in Detroit. Just trying to scrape by and put enough cash in my pocket to keep myself looking “fresh” in new clothes, so I could hang out at the clubs with the boys. In hindsight, it’s funny how very little it took to keep guys like us happy. A fresh haircut, a nice new suit or outfit, a few grand in our pocket to flash around at the strip club, and we were golden. What else could a 23-year-old wiseguy want?
One day, when my pockets were a little low, something popped in my head. A memory. Back when we were breaking into the Cherry Hill Textile building, pillaging the place for tens of thousands worth of fabrics we sold in Manhattan’s garment district, I had come across a book of old payroll checks while rummaging through a desk. A whole book. They were old, since the company had closed ten years previously, but they were all numbered and in perfect condition. At the time, when I showed them to Vince and Tommy, they shrugged and said, “Forget them, they’re worthless.” But what they didn’t know was that before coming to New York I had ran a pretty successful stolen check operation. It was a tricky racket, but it could make you a LOT of money. And make it quick.
So, one day I brought it up while having lunch with Vince at the little Greek café we always met at. “Hey, Vinny, remember all those checks we found a few months back in that abandoned building?”
“Yeah, sure,” he shrugged, taking a bite of his sandwich. “What about them?”
I moved in close so nobody else could hear. “Listen, I think I got an angle with them. We should try cashing some.”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
“Nah, no way. Check places around here will never cash them. They’re hip to that shit. Checks need to be digitally printed. And you need solid picture ID. It’ll never work.”
I gave him a maniacal grin. “Yes, it will. Trust me. I’ve done this before. We can make a ton of cash quick… is there a photo place around here? You know, like the kind that makes personal IDs for people?”
He thought for a moment and shrugged. “Yeah, sure, on Third and 82nd I think. Why?’’
I then explained my whole plan in great detail. By the time I was done, he was smiling and already dialing Tommy’s number.
So, the first thing we had to do was get the checks, which I was sure were still in the abandoned Cherry Hill Textile building. But this wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. After the old Jew who owned the building learned we were pillaging it for the remnants of his inventory, he had it sealed up tight, with steel doors and new locks. The average guy would have just given up. But I wasn’t the average guy. When it comes to a building, I’ve learned there is always a way in, even if you have to make one by force. This is where the Puerto Rican Carlos and his brother Popo (both heroin addicts) came in. Another thing that I‘d come to know is that junkies will do just about anything for a little cash. So, I told these two junkies I’d give them a $100 in cash to use a sledge hammer to bust a hole in the building’s back wall. That were more than happy to oblige.
It was quite an operation, real cloak-and-dagger. And quite comical, now that I’m thinking back to it. The back of the building was on some really dark industrial street, which was ideal. Tommy had these old walkie-talkies that were perfect of our little operation. We kept one and Carlos took one. Tommy and Vince stood on one corner with the walkie-talkie, while I stood on the opposite corner. Both of us were by payphones. That way, if I saw any cops coming down the block, I could call and give Vince a heads up, who would in turn warn Carlos and Popo with the walkie-talkie. It was hilarious, because it was a real quiet industrial area of Brooklyn, and you could hear these two junkies just smashing away on the back of this building for like 45 minutes. I know they had to be exhausted by the time they got through.
The plan was for us to go in that night, but we all chickened out because we didn’t want to get caught in there after making so much noise, figuring someone HAD to have called the cops, as the factory across the street was actually working a night shift. So, the next day, we walked by several times and the hole was still there. Just a big ass man-sized hole in the back of the building. Funny.
That night, we went in, decked out like some burglars in a movie. All black everything. We looked ridiculous but the outfits would help us hide in the place if the cops showed up, which thankfully they didn’t. The checks were right where I’d left them, on the floor under a desk in some defunct 3rd floor office. We were in and out of the place in maybe five minutes. A few days later we saw a big steel plate had been bolted over the hole in the back wall. Didn’t matter to us. We had already gotten what we needed.
Now here is where it gets interesting. The checks were easy to digitize to make them look like authentic payroll checks. I simply used my sister’s computer and printer. Proper identification to match the issuant of the check was the hard part. But I had an angle for that too. Back when I lived in Detroit, I usually had warrants or was under investigation for something or another. So, I stole a guy’s wallet and memorized all his ID. He was actually the boyfriend of my girlfriend’s friend, and kind of a douche so I didn’t feel bad about it. I ended up using his ID to get a driver’s license made with his name and my picture. That way, if I was stopped by the cops, I was covered. I could even rattle off his birthday, address, social security, everything. He never even knew. I cashed thousands of bogue checks with his ID and he had no clue it was me.
Unfortunately, at some point in New York I lost my fake ID. And to get another one I had to get a new picture ID made at a photo place in Brooklyn. Then I simply went to the Social Security office and got a new driver’s license. When it came in the mail a few days later, I was ready to start cashing checks. At first, we wrote the checks small, only several hundred dollars, although I don’t know why. That was a stupid move on our part. Writing them for $2,000-$3,000 wouldn’t have been unreasonable. I guess we were scared to make waves and draw too much attention to ourselves. Which of course we eventually did. After about a week we ran through most of the check-cashing places in our Brooklyn neighborhood. When we tried again, they refused to cash them because the checks came back “closed account.”
But, of course, we didn’t stop. In my novel, “TO BE A KING,” Omnio “King” Falcone always makes sure that he and his crew are well dressed at all times. Not because they are flamboyant and like to show off, but because it is indeed true that people respect a well-dressed man. And it was true when it came to the check scam. To continue cashing Cherry Hill checks, I began dressing up in a suit or at least shirt and tie. We would then head over to Staten Island, New Jersey, or even up to Connecticut. Dressed in a suit, I’d simply walk in and cash a check for maybe $600-$800 dollars, enough to be significant but not enough to raise a red flag at a bank, store, or check cashing place. Worked like a charm. At least for a while. But eventually they began questioning where the checks came from. I think there was some kind of local fraud alert. I’d just lie and say I was a contractor who got paid with the check.
But it didn’t stop there. This was a long time ago, before all the fraud firewalls were in place. We began shopping—buying everything from big-screen televisions to jewelry and everything in between. Tommy even bought a Firebird car, which he retagged using parts from his own Firebird. I bet we made at least a $100,000 in a month before the checks ran out. We screwed over a lot of places, but we were living fat. Of course, Veto caught wind and demanded his cut, but we only gave him of a small percentage of what we actually made.
I was sitting on a bunch of cash, maybe $10,000, and was missing home bad. I just felt out of place in New York and was ready to hire a bigshot lawyer back in Detroit, to see if he could help with my pending indictment. But, as it turned out, I didn’t even need to waste my money. A few weeks later, I received word from my uncle that my grandfather had successfully made the indictment go away. Apparently, the star witness had recanted his accusations, exonerating me, and was now claiming that he made the whole story up about me extorting him out of his father’s gun collection, and had in fact sold the guns himself to cover his drug and gambling habits.
Finally, I was able to return home to Detroit. Of course, it didn’t take long for me to jump right back into the streets. But I’ll save that for next time…