Sheila Seal was checking on her bank account in Bogalusa in August when a bank employee told her about checks worth a combined $2,500 that Seal didn’t recall writing.
“I said, ‘Hold it just a minute. Who are those checks to?’ ” Seal said. “She said, ‘Oh my goodness, Mrs. Sheila, you didn’t write these.’ ”
Seal, the wife of Washington Parish Sheriff Randy Seal, realized she had been a victim of identity theft. She would later discover she was caught in a counterfeit check and identity theft scheme that had been spreading across Louisiana and in nearby states since at least June, when the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office first began investigating numerous identity theft claims in that parish.
State Police said Tuesday that local authorities have arrested seven Baton Rouge residents in the case but are still assessing how many people — at least 400 in Louisiana so far — have been affected.
The common denominator among most victims, according to State Police, was that all had written checks payable to the LSU Health Care Services Division sometime before being victimized.
Investigators later determined that an LSU Health Care Services Division billing department employee had been printing images of checks stored in the hospital system’s financial database and turning them into counterfeit checks.
Capt. Tommie Sorrell, head of criminal investigations in the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday that she and her investigators contacted local businesses that seemed to be hot spots for fake check use.
Surveillance footage from the businesses repeatedly showed four women — Meshaune Wilson, Lisa Haynes, Valencia Paul, and Pamela Reams — using counterfeit checks, Sorrell said.
State Police detectives and Iberville Parish sheriff’s detectives arrested Wilson, Haynes and Paul in Iberville Parish on Nov. 8 after they were seen using counterfeit checks at Wal-Marts in Plaquemine and Donaldsonville, Trooper First Class Jared Sandifer said.
Detectives also found counterfeit checks, stolen bank account numbers, and counterfeit IDs with the women’s photos on them, Sandifer said.
Detectives learned that Wilson and Paul bought the counterfeit checks and ID cards from Tammy Matthews, who was paying Reams to make them, Sandifer said.
Detectives from State Police, the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office and the United States Secret Service searched Reams’ and Matthews’ homes Nov. 20 and found copies of scanned checks from the LSU Health Care Services Division database and several fake Louisiana ID Cards, Sandifer said.
Detectives also seized computers, handwritten Social Security Numbers and other items used to print checks and ID cards, Sandifer said.
Reams admitted she used the LSU hospital databases to obtain account information, and that Matthews paid her to produce counterfeit checks and IDs, Sandifer said.
Reams has been fired by the LSU Health Care Services Division, agency spokesman Marvin McGraw said.
The LSU Health Care Services Division said in a prepared statement that it is cooperating with law enforcement authorities and has launched an internal investigation into the incident.
Detectives have already identified nearly 400 possible victims in Louisiana affected by the scam, Sandifer said. People in at least 12 other states were also victimized, he said.
The checks were being made only in Baton Rouge but were spent all over Louisiana, including in Shreveport, Lafayette and Hammond, Sorrell said.
The checks were also cashed out of state, in such places as McComb, Miss., and Destin, Fla.
“They went any place they could basically jump on the interstate and get to within four or five hours,” Sorrell said.
Sorrell said that when all is said and done, investigators will likely find $100,000 worth of fraudulent checks cashed.
“It seems like every time I would have a person totally identified, two others would pop up,” Sorrell said. “I know that we have quite a bit of people that we have in custody affiliated with this particular case, but there’s probably still 10 more, if not more, that’s out there.”
Sheila Seal, who has worked at the LSU Bogalusa Medical Center the past 34 years, said her bank reimbursed her the $2,500 she lost. But she had to close the fraud-wrecked account.
“I couldn’t even write a check in town on my new account,” Seal said. “I had trouble writing checks for several months because of the identity theft.”
Reams, 47, was booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on Nov. 20 on 377 counts of identity theft and possession of fraudulent documents for identification purposes. She was also a fugitive in St. Tammany Parish for conspiracy to commit monetary abuse and bank fraud.
Wilson, 34; Haynes, 44; Paul, 37; and Matthews, 47, have already been booked into parish jails in East Baton Rouge, Washington, Iberville, Ascension and St. Tammany parishes on various counts of identity theft, monetary abuse and possession of fraudulent documents for identification purposes.
Authorities are looking for Paul so she can be booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on further counts of conspiracy to commit identity theft and conspiracy to commit monetary abuse, Sandifer said.
Lisa Anderson, who is Reams’ sister, was already in custody in Washington Parish on counts of identity theft, Sandifer said. She has also been booked in East Baton Rouge Parish on counts of identity theft, monetary instrument abuse and theft over $500.
Anderson, 46, and her husband, Billy Ray Taylor, were both seen on surveillance videos using the counterfeit checks at numerous East Baton Rouge Parish stores, Sandifer said.
Taylor, 42, of Baton Rouge, is accused of identity theft, monetary instrument abuse and theft over $500 in East Baton Rouge Parish.