SANTA FE, N.M. — The purported leader of a group of alleged thieves in the Santa Fe area liked to go on “fishing trips.”
He wasn’t after trout or bass, and didn’t go to the lake – Fletcher Schaffer “fished” at mail boxes, looking for bank or personal information he could use in an identity theft scheme, according to a co-conspirator’s account in Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office records.
In recent weeks, six people have been arraigned on identity theft, fraud and conspiracy charges for cashing counterfeit checks at various banks and casinos. One of them is accused of supplying all of the fake checks.
That’s Schaffer, 33, who pleaded not guilty to 20 felony counts at a court appearance in District Court on Oct. 9. He faces up to 28½ years in state prison if convicted on all charges.
Police believe he was stealing mail and using the bank information he found to create counterfeit checks and credit cards, according to a nearly 300-page report from the sheriff’s office.
While it appears that a lot of technical know-how went into the scheme, it didn’t take long for it to fall apart. A couple of checks cashed at Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino and Cities of Gold Casino – where surveillance cameras are standard – alerted investigators to the fraud. The fake checks even had the name of one of the perpetrators on it.
A woman reported to authorities that two $800 checks on her account had been cashed at the Pojoaque casinos on Feb. 18. She sent deputies a bank document indicating that someone named Regina Pacheco possibly cashed the checks. The checks, it turned out, had the victim’s checking account numbers on it, but was printed to show Regina Pacheco as the account holder.
The detective working the case had picked up Pacheco, 21, just days before on an unrelated arrest warrant and was able to identify her in casino surveillance footage. Within a week, she was arrested again.
According to the sheriff’s office documents, she confessed in an interview that she drove Schaffer around the Tesuque area three times on “fishing trips,” where she estimates they stole mail from more than 50 mailboxes.
She told investigators that Schaffer would use bank information found in the mail to create fake checks and he disposed of the stolen mail in various Dumpsters once he had the information he needed. He made the checks using check-writing software on his laptop, according to Pacheco.
She also said Schaffer has a “credit card scanner” in his room to make counterfeit credit cards. The cards, which Schaffer would sell for $1,800 each, were good for 13 swipes with an unlimited dollar amount, and Pacheco said he had the ability to print personalized information on them.
Pacheco said she had met Schaffer at a friend’s house last December. He asked her if she wanted to cash fake checks at area casinos once she turned 21, since casinos don’t let minors cash checks. Two days after her 21st birthday, at Buffalo Thunder on Feb. 7, Pacheco cashed a $500 check from the bank account of the woman who later called police.
Shortly after Pacheco was arrested and interviewed, officers executed a search warrant on Schaffer’s residence on Vitalia Street in Santa Fe.
Inside Schaffer’s room in the house he shares with his mother, deputies found counterfeiting equipment and notebooks with names, bank account numbers and routing numbers, as well as 13 blank credit cards.
There were also bank statements from the woman who first reported the fraudulent charges. Police also found a briefcase full of check refills in a shed on the property.
According to the sheriff’s office reports, Schaffer admitted to deputies that he had been making counterfeit checks in his room for the past two to three months, and he admitted giving three checks to Pacheco to cash at casinos.
He would wait at a slot machine while she made the transactions, and she would later meet him and he would take half the money. He also admitted having other people cash checks, he’s reported to have said.
Assistant District Attorney Regina Ryanczak, the lead prosecutor on the case, said it’s easy to obtain the equipment and know-how to commit such crimes from the Internet, and she pointed out that blank checks can be purchased anywhere that sells office supplies. “It’s something that a lot of these folks have just figured out,” Ryanczak said.
The investigation led police to a group of additional suspects, including Jessica Marie Pacheco, Johnny Moreno, Henry Garcia and John T. Abraham, along with three others who either weren’t charged or have had charges dropped after checks payable to them were found in the briefcase at Schaffer’s house.
Police say Moreno, 31, tried to cash an $800 check on the account Admiral Beverage Corporation at the Walmart on Cerrillos Road on Feb. 4. Moreno is also accused of cashing a check worth $890 from the account of Steven’s Consignment Gallery on Cerrillos Road on Feb. 10.
In at least one instance, Moreno allegedly tried to cash a real check that had apparently been stolen. The check was from GBS/CIDP Foundation International, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals afflicted with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages their nerve cells, and often causes muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.
That check was supposed to go to local doctor Carol Lee Koski, the medical director for the foundation, for services rendered. Koski reported that her mailbox was broken into while she was out of town and that she never received the check.
Moreno has pleaded not guilty to four counts of conspiracy, two counts of fraud and one count of identity theft. In 2014, he was charged with theft and fraudulent use of a credit card, conspiracy and forgery, but those charges were dropped without prejudice by the prosecutor a month later.
Regina Pacheco faces a total of 10 counts, including identification theft, fraud and conspiracy. Jessica Pacheco, 28, Regina’s older sister, and Abraham, 47, are accused of cashing checks from the account of the Canyon Road boutique Gypsy Baby.
Garcia, 39, allegedly tried to cash a check from Albuquerque-based 516 Arts at a New Mexico Bank and Trust location, but a teller became suspicious because the signature didn’t match anything in the banks’ records.
Rob Douglas, a Colorado-based identity theft expert who has done corporate security consulting with several national banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, said the simplest solution to mailbox theft is purchasing a lockable mailbox with a slot that allows postal carriers to insert mail.
“A guy checking doors will move on to the next house until he finds one that’s unlocked and that’s even more so the case with mailbox thieves,” Douglas said. “Nine times out of 10, they’re just going to bypass a locked mailbox.”
Douglas said mailbox theft is a very common form of identity theft, especially by people who are drug addicts, and he said the crime is more likely to happen in rural areas. He also recommends putting a mail slot on your front door if you can and having door mail delivery, or your most important mail sent to a post office box.
He says to be aware of the timing for bank information to come in the mail and to be alert if it hasn’t shown up on time. And to avoid stolen bank mail altogether, he recommends doing all bank business online, especially since most banks and credit card companies offer online services.
Juan Rios, a spokesman for SFCSO, said to not leave signs that you may be away from home, since criminals often target homes that appear to be empty. “If you’re going to be out of town, make sure someone picks up your mail and newspaper daily,” Rios said. “People like this are looking for signs that people may not be home.”
Although Douglas said intelligent thieves will adjust and find ways to steal, he said a lot of identity theft occurs because people don’t go through enough measures to protect their assets.
“As Americans, we are ridiculously careless with our information,” he said. “We all say we want privacy and security, yet we also want convenience, and sometimes we don’t want to remember a password.”