How the Sinemah Gaye Organization Allegedly Stole $2 Million With Counterfeit Checks

A rough approximation of how one of the counterfeit checks looked

A rough approximation of how one of the counterfeit checks looked

It's a scheme that sounds like it came right out of a white-collar version of The Wire: a huge, sophisticated organization stealing bank information, creating counterfeit checks, then using bank insiders to deposit and cash them. Twenty-eight members were in on the act, attempting to steal more than $2 million in total.

But it ain't fiction, says U.S. Attorney Andrew Lugar. In one of the largest busts of its kind in the state, Lugar's office charged the 28 alleged conspirators this week with all sorts of crimes -- bank fraud, identity theft, conspiracy. It's all part of a huge network of fraud, Lugar says, leaving thousands without cash and a select few with their pockets heavily lined.

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From the way the indictment documents explain it, the whole operation was led by one man: Sinemah Gaye, a 30-year-old from Anoka. But he was just the leader, the tip of a pyramid with layer upon layer underneath.

The first layer -- featuring Gaye and two accomplices, Finoh Fillie and Karzil Cannedy -- were the "manufacturers," the documents allege. They oversaw the operation, illegally got a hold of victims' checks, account numbers, and all sorts of other juicy details. From there, they used their own software and machinery to make copy after copy, creating fake checks that were paid out to those in the operation, plus others who'd already had their identities stolen.

To get those accounts and routing numbers, the manufacturers relied on another part of the group, called "the insiders." According to the indictment, this consisted of door-to-door meat salesman Timothy Tillman, plus two sisters: Felisha Hassim, a TCF Bank branch manager, and Annesa Hassim, a teller at Central Bank. Tillman took the checks he received and sent their info over to the manufacturers to get reproduced. The Hassim sisters, meanwhile, used their jobs to their advantage, the documents say, getting a name here or an account number there, then processing counterfeit checks.

But it also turns out that in this day and age, you don't even really need insiders. You can also just pop on over to Instagram, search through the hashtags for "#firstpaycheck," and you'll be flooded with picture after picture of young teenagers posing for selfies with that brand new pay stub, leaving their name, account number, and routing number flying around for the world to see.

That was all Gaye and the other manufacturers needed. Combine that with the Hassim sisters, plus a dozen recruiters to bring in more accomplices and seven runners to complete the transactions, and you've got yourself a full-fledged criminal operation.

So it went: get account info, manufacture fake checks, recruit, then deposit. Over and over and over, all the tune of more than two million dollars, taken from thousands of businesses and victims across the state.

The scariest part of the whole thing may be that this almost certainly isn't the end of this kind of crime. Instead, it's probably the tip of the iceberg. Banks are just so lucrative, especially for small-time criminals who used to be stuck with just selling drugs or stealing from a convenience store. With all that info available online, Lugar says, the criminals have set up camp on the net.

"Petty thieves and drug dealers have become white-collar criminals."

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.