Three women were indicted last week by a Pike grand jury on more than 50 felony charges for allegedly being involved in a scheme in which they attempted to collect tens of thousands of dollars from the accounts of people whose information they had purchased from identity thieves online.
The grand jury indicted Nicole S. Bell, 29, of New York City, Brandell E. Charleston, 36, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Jessica Pomelow, 30, of Brooklyn, New York, on two class D felony charges of theft by deception and 49 class D felony counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument.
Pikeville Police Det. Bruce Collins said the case came to the attention of his department in August thanks to a teller at a Pikeville branch of U.S. Bank who became suspicious of an individual attempting to cash a check.
The teller, Collins said, checked and found that not all details of the person cashing the check and the account holder matched up.
“With a little extra work on the teller, she realized everything didn’t match up perfectly,” Collins said.
Collins said the teller told an off-duty Pike County Sheriff’s deputy, who happened to be in the bank at the time, of the issues and the deputy got a vehicle description and followed the vehicle until now-retired Det. Virgil Ray could respond and stop the vehicle.
Collins said the deputy was able to identify one of the three females in the vehicle as the one who had attempted to cash the check.
Collins said officers questioning the women became suspicious.
“They had no luggage,” he said. “They couldn’t really provide us with a good reason why they were here.”
A search of the vehicle, Collins said, revealed a bag under the driver’s side seat which contained a surprising find for the officers.
Inside the bag, he said, were various professional-style checks, along with identification cards with various individuals’ information on them, as well as credit cards matching the information on the checks. The identification cards, Collins said, had two of the females’ photos on them with various different names and identifying information.
Collins said the ensuing investigation was educational for him, as officers found that the information contained in the checks, credit cards and identifications had been purchased by one of the women from the “dark web.” Identity thieves, using either credit card “skimmers” or stealing the information from online, had gathered the information the woman then went online and purchased.
“She purchased U.S. Bank accounts and identification, everything associated with the accounts, she purchased it online on the dark web,” Collins said. “Once it was shipped to her, she got a couple of helpers and they set out on a spree of cashing checks.”
Collins said that, at the time of the stop in Pikeville, the women had already collected $10,000 using the stolen information and had checks totaling approximately $68,000 left to be cashed in the bag.
Despite the success of the case, Collins said, officers are left with a question.
“How many times have they done this and been successful?” Collins said, adding that no local U.S. Bank customers’ information was found in the materials seized from the women.
At the time of the arrest in August, Bell was also charged with being a fugitive from justice in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Fairfax and Green counties in Virginia, as well as being a fugitive from Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Collins said that, without the vigilance of the teller and the off-duty deputy, the thieves would have likely been able to move on from here to cash the checks elsewhere.
“We’re blessed to live in such a community as we do, where a lot of us know each other,” Collins said. “But we’re also blessed that we have good people who work in places like that who try to protect us because it would have been very easy for the teller to just cash the check. But that teller, that day, went above what she had to do.”
Collins said U.S. Bank was “great” in working with the department and immediately investigated once contacted.
U.S. Bank did not comment directly on the case, but said in a statement that the company takes the privacy of its customers very seriously.
“We always strive to do the right thing and put customers first,” the company said in a statement. “Customer privacy is paramount, and we cannot comment on individuals and their accounts.”
Collins said this case points to why people shouldn’t get upset if asked for identification to do different types of business, especially since it shows that, in this case, it was someone asking for that information who broke the case open.
He said it also points to the need for people to educate themselves on how scammers collect information and for individuals to take steps to protect themselves.
“Watch yourself, be extra cautious about where you’re at,” he said. “And particularly be careful online.”
The women were lodged in the Pike County Detention Center immediately after the stop in August and later released from jail pending the case being heard by a grand jury.