0

North Gwinnett Co-op: Client accused of theft

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

BUFORD -- The executive director of the North Gwinnett Cooperative Ministry is pressing charges against a woman who is accused of using the charity's bank account information to pay utility bills.

Maureen Kornowa, who runs the co-op located in Buford, said she discovered the theft two weeks ago when she was balancing April bank statements. Kornowa said a woman helped by the organization in March used the routing and account numbers from one of the co-op's checks to make unauthorized payments over the phone to three different utility companies.

Kornowa said warrants have been issued for the arrest of Maria Martinez on charges of identity fraud and theft. She said police have searched for Martinez at two addresses, both of which have been vacant.

"We're a last resource for families in need," Kornowa said. "We already helped his woman pay utilities and get prescription medication. ... She got (help) and then took more.

"We can't allow people to steal like that. ... I have to be the voice of thousands of people that she stole from here."

The North Gwinnett Co-op helps residents of Buford, Sugar Hill and Suwanee obtain food and clothing and helps pay bills in emergency situations for lights, heat, water and prescription medication.

The co-op was able to get the money back, because ACH payments are returnable within 30 days, Kornowa said. She also worked with the bank to block all ACH payments to utility companies in the area to prevent fraud from happening in the future.

Kornowa said she gave the woman a chance to make restitution within 24 hours when she discovered the theft. The woman initially declined, and when she called back four or five days later with an offer to pay the money back, the warrants had been filed, Kornowa said.

Other ministries can avoid this type of theft from happening by contacting their bank to block ACH payments, which are made over the phone or electronically, to nearby utility companies, Kornowa said.

"My hope is to let agencies like ours know how to avoid this same situation and to let it be heard that we will always prosecute those who take advantage of our kindness," Kornowa said.