Federal prosecutors filed charges Friday against a dozen people suspected of being part of a Minnesota-based identity theft ring that stole more than $2 million from banks and businesses in 14 states.
The group created a "complex plot to defraud banks and retail businesses, primarily in the Midwest," prosecutors said in a statement released Friday.
According to the statement, some of the defendants allegedly stole personal information from their employers and provided it to others who used the information to create fake driver's licenses and counterfeit checks. Others obtained personal information by stealing mail, breaking into cars, and burglarizing businesses.
After obtaining the information, prosecutors allege, the defendants used the counterfeit checks to buy gift cards and expensive items from stores. They then altered the receipts and returned the items for cash, prosecutors said, and the money "was divided among those involved in the criminal activity."
The defendants also allegedly used the stolen information to open bank accounts or gain access to existing bank accounts. The defendants allegedly withdrew money from each account just a few times "to avoid detection," the statement said.
The federal indictment, unsealed Friday, charged the 12 defendants with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and charged 11 of the defendants with aggravated identity theft.
One of the defendants, Minneapolis resident Steven Maxwell, 43, had been indicted Dec. 5 of aggravated identity theft. Maxwell has pleaded not guilty. The latest indictment adds conspiracy to commit bank fraud and money laundering.
The other defendants include Minneapolis residents Norman Allen, 42, Frederick Hamilton, 56, Joel Powell, III, 19, and Elston Sharp, 46; St. Paul residents Desmon Burks, 36, and Robin Finger, 43; Russell Royals, 59, of Cottage Grove; Joel Powell, Jr., 46, of St. Louis Park; Donyea Collins, 26, of Richfield; Derek Estelle, 24, of Stillwater; Trey Powell, 18, of Brooklyn Park.
Prosecutors said seven other people have already been charged and pleaded guilty from Sept. 29, 2011 to Jan. 19, 2012. The investigation was conducted by the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division.