“Thou Shalt Not Steal” is one of the Ten Commandments—and it was broken in a rather remarkable way during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During coronavirus shutdowns, church members found new ways to submit their offerings. Some turned to electronic giving, while others mailed or dropped off checks. Unfortunately, some thieves took advantage of these faithful stewards.
Authorities have arrested six people accused of stealing $740,000 from more than 600 churches and church schools—more than half of which are in Florida. Churches as far away as Oregon were victimized. The investigation, dubbed “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” began last December and eventually led to six Romanian nationals who operated out of Orlando.
Thou Shalt Not Steal—’Almost a Perfect Crime’
Four suspects arrested on May 26 are now in a Florida jail; the remaining two were taken into custody days later in Mexico and are awaiting extradition. Charges include grand theft, racketeering, money laundering and more.
Shane Pollard with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) says the suspects removed mail from church mailboxes on days when worship services weren’t occurring. “This theft ring took full advantage of the [pandemic] situation, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in church donations out of church mailboxes,” he says. “It was almost a perfect crime as COVID-19 swept the country.”
“They would spread the checks between themselves to be deposited into various bank accounts using ATMs,” Pollard adds. “Once the money posted to an account, they withdrew the funds immediately in cash before the banks realized the checks were actually made payable to churches and not the suspects.”
Police say they have video surveillance of some of the thefts. The suspects reportedly spent offerings on food, clothes, cars and entertainment, as well as wire transfers back to Romania.
FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen says, “This low-tech yet well-organized effort to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of mailed-in charitable donations—at a time when donations may have been most needed—has been stopped.”
Attorney General: Greedy Crime Ring Exploited People’s Generosity
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, whose office will prosecute the case, says, “Churches depend on donations from generous members of the community to operate and serve those in need. It is despicable that this crime ring would exploit the selfless acts of kindness displayed through these donations for selfish greed.”
According to lists posted online, churches from a wide range of denominations were targeted. Pastor Taylor Foley of Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., says about a dozen families from his congregation were affected. “We actually had a family reach out to us and meet with one of our pastors concerned that their giving was not being reflected on the quarterly giving statements we send out,” he says. “We did our own internal review, just to make sure our internal checks and balances were being followed.”
After contacting its bank, leaders at Grace UMC called police. If any money is recovered, says Pastor Foley, it will go to the donors, not the church. “We’ll let them decide what to do.”
To prevent thefts, security experts recommend churches use lockable mailboxes for physical deliveries. Online giving also has become popular, especially due to the pandemic.