POTTAWATOMIE COUNTY, Okla. - Investigators are warning people to keep careful track of their mail and garbage after a far-reaching identity theft ring was discovered just outside Shawnee.
On Thursday, Brittany Hall was arrested, charged so far with possession of a stolen credit card, and possession of stolen mail. Police are investigating three other possible suspects.
It all started when one of Hall's alleged victims, Chelsea Rigney, got a photo text message from a bail bondsman, saying the woman pictured was trying to use Chelsea's sister's financial information.
"I messaged her back and said no that`s not my sister," Chelsea said. "I don`t know who that is."
Then Chelsea started getting returned checks in her mailbox that had supposedly been written by her sister.
"Bounced checks all over Shawnee and Oklahoma City for my sister," Chelsea said, "and my sister has been in Arizona the past two years."
Using facial recognition software, Chelsea discovered the woman in the bail bondsman's photo was Brittany Hall. Then when Chelsea realized someone had put her mail on hold, she checked with the post office and was told the person who did it used her sister's information, and the email address belonging to a woman named Tammy Burgard's.
Burgard lives in Pottawatomie County, so Chelsea contacted her. Tammy told Chelsea that Hall is her tenant.
Chelsea and Tammy took the information they had to the Det. Lt. Ken Vanduser at the Pottawatomie Sheriff's Office, and it wasn't long before they got a real breakthrough. A car Hall was driving was impounded, and when the car's owner went to pick it up, they found a bag of other people's checks, mail, and financial documentation.
Investigators said Hall was allegedly stealing outgoing mail out of people's mailboxes, and mail out of dumpsters, including whole resident files out of a dumpster at a Colorado Springs apartment complex.
Lt. Vanduser also said they found entire resident files from Shawnee apartment complex Chapel Ridge Apartments. The apartment manager told the lieutenant the apartment office had been broken into earlier this year and that's when files were stolen.
"Pictures of their I.D.s, and their social security numbers, contact information," Lt. Vanduser said.
Deputies went to talk to Hall and she gave them permission to search her trailer. Inside, they discovered even more potentially incriminating evidence, including notebooks with people's names, addresses, driver's license numbers, dates of birth, expiration dates, account numbers, routing numbers to checking accounts, and other sensitive information.
Lt. Vanduser said it looks like they were writing over old checks as well as using stolen account information to print brand new ones.
"She’s pretty good at what she does," Lt. Vanduser said. "She’s been putting holds on mail at locations so that she can collect it when she’s ready and not the person that lives there."
"She`d also opened up credit accounts in my name, checking accounts in my name," Tammy said, "she`d opened up credit accounts in Chelsea`s name."
Deputies arrested Hall, charged with possession of a stolen credit card, and possession of stolen mail. They said there may be more charges pending.
Investigators are also working to identify the total number of victims.
"At bare minimum, I would say that we`ve at least identified 10 to 15, and that`s just scratching the surface," Lt. Vanduser said.
For Chelsea and Tammy, the ordeal has been a wake up call.
"The most shocking thing to me was that she was able to do all this by getting mail out of mail boxes," Tammy said. "If you don’t have a locking mailbox, you’re at risk. It’s astonishingly easy to do."
Chelsea said she's just glad to see justice done for her family and the countless others who may have been victimized.
"I can only imagine how many people out there didn’t know this was happening to them," Chelsea said. "Your credit, that’s your livelihood. That’s everything that you work hard for."
Besides getting a locking mail box, investigators also suggest people shred or thoroughly burn every piece of paper with an account number on it when throwing it away.