Three Santa Maria residents were arrested Friday in connection with a mail and identity theft ring that's affected more than 150 people in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties since May, authorities said.
The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department announced the arrests Wednesday after members of the public inquired about a raid Friday at a Santa Maria home on the 500 block East Cook Street.
The three people arrested at the home Friday were Natalie Rae Fuentes, 26; Michael John Hastings, 44; and Casey Sartain, 29.
It’s not clear whether the suspects lived at the home, but authorities said they found evidence of mail theft, stolen checks and identity fraud there.
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Additional suspects are being sought, officials said.
The suspects allegedly stole mail from U.S. Postal Service drop boxes — including some in Pismo Beach — and used a chemical solution to wash the original information off any checks they found, leaving account holders’ signatures intact. They then changed the payee and/or sums on the checks, authorities said.
The checks were then deposited into online accounts created for the scam, and the funds were transferred to debit cards that accomplices used to take money from the victims’ bank accounts, authorities said.
The number of drop boxes that were burglarized wasn’t disclosed Wednesday.
Authorities didn’t disclose what was purchased with the stolen funds.
The number of San Luis Obispo County residents whose accounts were affected also was not disclosed Wednesday. But detectives said some of the victims lived in the North and South counties, including in Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo. Sheriff's Department spokesman Rob Byrn said Wednesday that there may be theft victims living in other locations that have not yet been confirmed.
The Pismo Beach and Santa Maria police departments, as well as the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, assisted in the investigation.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Bomb Task Force also processed an explosive device at the home during Friday’s raid. No injuries were reported.
Fuentes was booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail on numerous fraud charges; bail is set at $20,000.
Hastings was booked into San Luis Obispo County Jail on parole violations. Sartain is being held in Santa Barbara County Jail, also on a parole hold. Both are being held without bail, authorities said.
Mail theft is a federal crime that could lead to fines and up to five years in prison if convicted, according to the U.S. Postal Service.
Authorities haven’t yet determined whether the suspects will be charged in federal court, Bryn said.
Anyone with information about the suspects or crime can call the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 1-877-876-2455 and select option 2. The case number is 1752437.
Those who suspect they’re victims can submit a “Mail Theft and Vandalism” complaint at their local post office, at postalinspectors.uspis.gov or by calling 1-877-876-2455 and choosing option 3.