Crime & Courts

Wichitans wonder whether they were targets of identity theft ring

Dusty Edington, 21, said he had more than $1,000 in debt allegedly amassed in his name by one member of a group that is accused of stealing more than $3.5 million from Wichitans.
Dusty Edington, 21, said he had more than $1,000 in debt allegedly amassed in his name by one member of a group that is accused of stealing more than $3.5 million from Wichitans. The Wichita Eagle

A little over a year ago, Dusty Edington, 21, received a notice in the mail that he owed $1,200 to a Speedy Cash in Wichita.

He had been training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for more than 150 days, so the debt didn’t make any sense. But he noticed on his account that another $200 had been charged to him two days before by PayPal.

Edington realized he’d been victimized, but he was confused about how his information was stolen. He’s careful about where he puts his information online and keeps all his records and paycheck stubs in a lockbox.

Before leaving for training, he had moved to a different apartment. Maybe, he thought, some of his mail didn’t get forwarded.

Edington had to take a day off from his military training to deal with the financial matters.

A representative from PayPal said the name on the account from which the $200 had been deposited was Justin Vanley. Police said Vanley was already being investigated. So after a day’s worth of calls, Edington was able to get his money back. And that was that.

Then, at the end of May, Vanley and 12 others were indicted on charges of running one of the largest identity theft rings that has ever been prosecuted in Kansas, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

It turned out that the group had allegedly divided their work into an illicit small business, according to the U.S. attorney, with some stealing mail, some doctoring checks, some creating false identities, some heading to the store to cash it and others selling methamphetamines. They had bought two fancy cars in excess of $100,000 and were on target to net about $3.5 million in total, according to the indictment.

WHO ELSE?

When Edington learned about the ring, he received some closure.

But other Wichitans are now wondering whether their stolen money and missing mail are somehow connected.

Keely Connolly had a newborn at home last August, so her world already felt upside-down; she wasn’t sure whether she was being delusional about the mail missing.

“I was a brand-new mom, so my brain was not working,” Connolly said. “I thought I was just losing it – maybe I just forgot, maybe we didn’t need any mail.”

But the mail didn’t show up for weeks, and their health insurance for the baby was canceled because of a check that the insurance company said they never received. Their neighbors, who were on disability, told them they had not received their most recent checks.

“We would find our mailbox hanging wide open,” Connolly said. “So I would actually make sure I was home and waiting for the mail carrier, because she would come by in her car and I would just run out there and get it.”

Her boyfriend, Christopher Mayberry, reported the missing mail to a postal service employee, who told him to also call the police and file a report. But they never heard back, so when they read about the identity theft ring in The Eagle recently, they wondered.

“All I can do is speculate,” Mayberry said. “(The identity theft ring) seems to have been happening around the same time we were experiencing our problem.”

A PATTERN

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and other investigators would not comment any further on the case because it’s still being prosecuted. But the operation of the identity theft ring in Wichita that is laid out in the indictment follows many patterns of identity theft across the country and world, according to Rob Douglas. He is an information security consultant from Colorado who advises companies and individuals on how they can protect themselves from identity theft.

The Wichita group operated on a larger scale than many similar rings, according to Douglas, but most of its methods were unsurprising.

In most cases of mail theft, he said, there are also methamphetamine charges. That is because, to make money, they have to steal lots of mail. But the leaders of these rings know that stealing mail is risky, so they’ll find drug users who will be their “mail mules” for a fix, Douglas said. He’s not sure why it’s usually meth.

If a group is careful and not greedy, they likely won’t get caught, he said. That means spreading the theft across many areas, limiting the number of thieves they employ and not trying to purchase high-ticket items.

The reason he calls it “the crime that pays” is that there is too much identity theft for the authorities to investigate, Douglas said. So, typically, the police will only take down the information of a complaint, he said. If you’re lucky, Douglas said, the police will have enough manpower to arrest the meth user on a petty charge but not to follow the crime up the chain.

It’s only when the volume of complaints starts to spike and the case “gets sexy” that authorities tend to devote the resources to taking it down, Douglas said.

Even though electronic identity theft has been spiking into the millions of cases per year, he said, ordinary mail theft continues at similar rates as in the past.

Victims, punishment

Cindy Etter had to borrow several thousand dollars a couple of years ago to pay for electrical work on her Wichita house. She dropped off that check and several others in a secure, blue postal service box. But that check and several others never arrived. She had to do some legwork on her own, but eventually, Etter said, Wichita police tracked the theft to Jennifer Harper, who was indicted with three others.

Because the time frame matches the most recent indictments, Etter wondered whether her case might have been connected.

Harper’s group had been caught using sticky mousetraps to fish mail out of the box, according to the indictment in their case. But the postal service changed their mailboxes so that the sticky traps wouldn’t work anymore. The group just pried open the mailboxes and took the mail.

Once a group has the checks, Douglas said, identity theft rings will typically pick someone who looks unassuming to cash them.

Even though Harper pleaded guilty, she never served any jail time, according to court documents. Her lawyers argued that she was the only one in her family who could take care of her children.

Harper said she ran away from home to Oregon at 14. At 15, she was pregnant and homeless thousands of miles away.

“I walked and walked and walked. I used to steal (my baby’s) food and diapers to live,” Harper said. “And then when he was 2 months old, I had to come back (to Wichita) because I could not keep him on the street.”

When she turned 21, she met a man who took advantage of her, and she started using drugs. She got clean in 2004, she said, and started attending church in 2005. She built a house to raise her four children in and worked as a nurse to support them.

But in 2011, one of the men who had gotten her into trouble before returned during a moment when her friend had committed suicide and she was recovering from blood clots after giving birth.

“I’m just an idiot. I thought he changed, I thought he was different,” Harper said. “He wasn’t.”

The man whom she was eventually indicted with installed cameras in her house, GPS on her car, threatened to throw acid in her face and nearly drove her off the road once, she said. She got a restraining order and called the police constantly, but she said the man refused to leave. She began to use drugs again after years of being sober.

“I started using again because I just wanted to die,” she said. “I figured my life was never going to change.”

He would return at night with lots of stolen mail. Even when she would refuse to get out of the car to cash stolen checks at the bank, she said, he would find something manipulative to say that would make her get out.

“He just had this way of being so mean and just saying the right things,” she said. “So I just didn’t even care anymore and would just do it.”

Getting arrested in 2014 was a turning point. “I had no fight left,” Harper said. “I was exhausted. I didn’t argue anything.”

She pleaded guilty. She went back for additional drug rehab and resumed her job as a nurse.

She’s going to stay a single mom of five, she said, because she doesn’t trust people anymore.

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

Theft prevention

Everyone pays some

In the end, everyone pays a little bit in identity thefts, said Rob Douglas, an information security consultant from Colorado. In the past, if you had your wallet stolen with cash inside, you probably never got it back. But now that credit card companies cover identity thefts, they tend to pass on their losses to everyone in the form of slightly higher fees, which leads to slightly higher prices at stores.

But victims don’t always get refunded the full amount, and even when they do, they often have to spend a lot of time working to receive it.

Safer mailboxes

Douglas recommends homeowners follow a few simple steps to avoid becoming a victim. Buy a mailbox that locks and is postal service approved, or use a P.O. box. “It’s very much like burglars. They see a locking mailbox, they’re just going to go to the next one,” Douglas said. “An ounce of prevention can go an awful long way.”

Credit reports

Normally, people can get their money back from credit card companies relatively easily. The time when it really becomes a hassle is when thieves create separate accounts and take out loans in your name without you knowing it, Douglas said. So he recommends getting a free credit report three times per year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.

The internet is full of recommendations for how to avoid fraud, much of which is common sense, Douglas said.

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