The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office arrested 14 people in connection with a fraud scheme after more than $130,000 was stolen from Sarasota banking institutions over a six-month period.

“This was a very thorough investigation thanks to the relentless work of our detectives over the course of several months,” said Sheriff Tom Knight. “Let this be a message to those who think they can target our community and our businesses — their criminal behavior is not welcome here.”

Detectives launched the investigation in March 2018, after being alerted to a group of people cashing fraudulent checks at several banks in Sarasota.

Caithness Construction, in Venice, was one of the businesses who reported a check was stolen or obtained improperly and used to make counterfeit checks. They suffered more than $16,000 in loses from checks cashed by SunTrust Bank outside of Venice by at least three of the defendants, including the lone female who coordinated the counterfeit operation.

Through investigation detectives learned Wilfredo Lopez provided counterfeit checks to Eliener Castano-Paredes, who in turn, recruited individuals to cash the counterfeit checks through coordinated bank transactions.

From December 2017 through May 2018, the recruits kept a percentage of the transactions as payment while Castano-Paredes returned the remaining cash directly to Lopez. The transactions took place two to three times a day at banks near I-75 from Brandon to Fort Myers. Over the course of six months, 26 transactions were conducted in Sarasota County alone, resulting in a loss of $131,906.

In total, officials believe Lopez and his group conducted more than 50 transactions stealing nearly $275,000 from banks throughout the state of Florida.

Lopez, 29, of Miami, and Castano-Paredes, 22, of Wesley Chapel, are each charged with one count of scheme to defraud over $50,000. To date, 12 additional individuals (all but one are from Tampa) have been identified and charged, however the investigation is ongoing and additional charges are pending. Many of the defendants are Cuban-born, with some undocumented, some visiting, and some with permanent U.S. residence status.

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