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Man pleads guilty in scheme that exploited Providence area homeless people

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A Georgia man, one of four charged in March with running a scheme in which Providence area homeless and transient individuals were recruited to cash counterfeit business checks in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine, in exchange for cash payments, pleaded guilty in federal court in Providence today to conspiracy to commit bank fraud.

A United States Secret Service-led investigation determined that from October 2018 through February 2021, numerous homeless individuals were arrested at banks throughout the region attempting to cash counterfeit business checks. Many of them reported similar patterns of being approached by one or more males in Providence and being offered the opportunity to cash bogus checks in return for cash payments.

According to information presented to the court, among those approaching individuals to cash checks was Michael Williams, 26, of East Point, GA. Once a person agreed to cash a check, Williams and his co-conspirators, Austin Weaver, 31, of Decatur, GA, Cortavious Benford, 26, of Atlanta, GA, and Jalen Ronald Stanford, 28, of East Point, GA, allegedly created a counterfeit check made payable to the individual and then drove him or her to a bank to cash it. The checks were generally in the amount of $2,000 or more. Individuals were often paid about $100 per check that they successfully cashed.

On February 5, 2021, Williams and Cortavious Benford allegedly recruited and drove a homeless person to a Providence bank to cash a check. They threatened to injure the man if he failed to provide them with all the proceeds. From inside the bank, the man pointed to a white sedan that was parked outside of the bank as containing the individuals who recruited him and provided him with the counterfeit check. Providence Police located the vehicle a short distance away and arrested Williams and Benford. They were found to be in possession of $12,000 in cash.

A court-authorized search of a Providence residence that law enforcement determined the co-conspirators used when in Rhode Island resulted in the seizure of items used in the creation of counterfeit checks, including a computer, which had a program used to design and print checks, a printer, blank check stock, and an envelope containing numerous stolen checks and approximately $5,000 in cash.

Several completed fraudulent checks, which included known cashers and victim business information were found on the computer.

The investigation determined that using homeless and itinerant individuals, Williams and his co-conspirators allegedly attempted to cash approximately $677,687 worth of counterfeit checks throughout the New England region, causing losses to financial institutions of approximately $480,000.

Appearing today before U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell, Jr., Michael Williams pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud, announced Acting United States Attorney Richard B. Myrus. Williams is scheduled to be sentenced on September 21, 2021.

Cortavious Benford, Austin Weaver, and Jalen Ronald Stanford, are awaiting trial.

The cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee H. Vilker.

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