43 People Indicted for Bank Fraud, $30M in Cigarette Trafficking in Virginia

Forty-three people have been indicted for bank fraud, cigarette trafficking and money laundering in Virginia.

The suspects were charged with more than 740 crimes in Henrico County, and the investigation included more than 600,000 cartons with an estimated value of more than $30 million, police said.

Fairfax County Police began investigating two years ago when a bank investigator in Fairfax County reported a group of at least 12 people were intentionally writing checks from accounts with no available funds.

Investigators found the group was fraudulently building up banking credit by making deposits and withdrawals in a short period of time. The suspects were renting cars using debit cards but withdrawing money from the accounts before the transactions were completed. 

Police say the suspects committed these acts at nine banks in Fairfax County, resulting in a $620,000 loss.

"It's got to be one of the largest organized criminal groups that we've had," Fairfax County Police 2nd Lt. Tom Harrington said.

Money generated in Northern Virginia was used to pay for cigarettes in the Richmond area.

During the investigation, police found the suspects were using addresses in both Northern Virginia and Richmond. Law enforcement agencies in both jurisdictions got involved, and discovered more than 80 suspects were involved in the banking fraud.

Henrico County Police launched an investigation into cigarette trafficking in late 2015 due to violent crime involved with it. Robberies, shootings, carjackings and burglaries were related to cigarette trafficking, police said.

"These groups would target each other with the large amounts of money and basically use violence against each other," Harrington said.

More than 20 law enforcement agencies, including Homeland Security and the FBI, partnered to find out 29 fake businesses were used to buy tax-exempt cigarettes to sell out of state, police said.

"The price of of cigarettes in Richmond is extremely low," Harrington said. "The price up in the Northeast is extremely high. So what they will do is they can go into Richmond and purchase large quantities of cigarettes and then transport them up to New York and they are going to double their profit."

Some of the suspects got caught heading north, police said.

"Multiple vehicle were stopped with suspects ... and that was when it was learned they were trafficking cigarettes," Harrington said.

The group was also operating a cigarette tax fraud and smuggling ring out of a home in the Falls Church area, police say. 

All of the suspects are from the North African nation Mauritania. Investigators want to track the money and find out if any of it was sent to terrorists.

"When money is being laundered in the U.S. and we don't know where it's going, obviously, that's one of the things we're going to look into: Terrorism,' Harrington said.

Not all of the suspects are in custody, but police are confident they will capture them.

It's illegal to buy cigarettes in one state and resell them in another state. But it happens in Virginia, which has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country. The problem was exposed by a News4 I-Team in a series of stories in 2015.

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