The ringleader of a major counterfeit check scheme pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to bank fraud and identity theft charges.
Sean Akina, 28, faces a minimum of two years in jail just on the ID theft charge.
He’s one of seven Hawaii residents indicted by a federal grand jury who have pleaded guilty to similar charges.
"This ... appears to be something that started as a petty crime that's moved into an organized crime phase,” said Gregory Dunn, CEO of the Better Business Bureau Hawaii.
According to federal authorities, Akina bought blank checks online then printed the account numbers of real companies on the checks, making them look like legitimate payroll checks.
He then cashed the checks himself or distributed them to his partners.
"The scam was they would cash the check and give the ringleader the majority of the money and they would get a small percentage for themselves,” said Victor Bakke, attorney for one of Akina’s co-defendants.
The Better Business Bureau said it's seeing an increase in check fraud schemes targeting employers.
"It appears that payroll checks are much easier to cash, particularly if the account numbers and routing numbers on the bottom match," Dunn said.
Prosecutors also alleged that Akina and his ring used stolen identification cards to cash counterfeit checks.
"They were specifically instructed to present the check with someone else's ID. There was no question they knew what was going on," Bakke said.
Akina -- who remains free on bail -- has an extensive criminal record. He's been convicted in state court on robbery, fraud and ID theft charges.
His sentencing on the federal charges is set for Sept. 14.