Applications that psychologists made to the Minnesota Board of Psychology to get or renew their licenses delivered a gold mine of information to a receptionist working with a crime ring to defraud banks and retailers in 14 states.

Robin Finger, 44, is the latest of several people in a position of trust to plead guilty to the identity fraud ring that involved more than 30 people and at least $2 million in fraudulent purchases and bank withdrawals. In federal court Thursday, the prosecution described how Finger passed along the Social Security numbers and bank account data of psychologists to other members of the ring that eventually victimized 42 people.

Fifteen people, including a bank teller, have pleaded guilty in the case. Ten others have pleaded not guilty and await trial Aug. 20.

On Wednesday, Russell Raymond Royals, one of the key figures in the case, pleaded guilty to bank fraud, conspiracy and aggravated identity theft.

The alleged conspirators would pilfer financial information and identities from cars, businesses, trash cans and mailboxes, and they obtained some information from employees at certain businesses, including banks, who had access to customer records.

The indictment says the ring hit accounts at 29 financial institutions.

Finger, of St. Paul, worked as a receptionist for the state Board of Psychology from December 2006 to May 2011, when she was terminated. A termination letter from the board doesn't mention the federal fraud charges as the reason she was fired, but it said the board was aware she had engaged in gravely serious behavior.

It detailed a two-month "employee misconduct investigation" started in March 2011 that found she took two money orders submitted to the board totaling $1,050 and altered them so she could cash the money orders. She also admitted to leaving her computer password in an area where it was accessible to others, the letter said.

Finger was reprimanded in 2010 for inappropriate use of electronic technology, the letter said.

On Thursday, Finger agreed to a plea deal that could send her to prison for six years for conspiracy to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft. She must also cooperate in the prosecution of her co-defendants and is required to make restitution of $358,780 to the victims. Finger and her attorney declined to comment.

Two cheating schemes

U.S. postal inspector Barry Bouchie described the investigation Nov. 4 in sworn statements that were used to obtain criminal complaints against Royals, 59, of Cottage Grove, and Steven L. Maxwell, 43, of St. Paul. Each has an extensive criminal history, including convictions for check forgery.

Depending on how Royals' prior criminal history stacks up, federal guidelines on the current fraud charge recommend a prison term of between eight and more than 27 years.

According to Royals' plea agreement, he participated in at least two illegal schemes from 2006 through 2011. In the first, he and his associates used bogus identification documents, including driver's licenses, to pass counterfeit checks created by using purloined account-holder information from hundreds of individuals.

Royals provided phony IDs and counterfeit checks to "runners" who passed them at various retailers such as Wal-Mart. They bought expensive merchandise and then returned it for cash.

In the second scheme, Royals and his associates allegedly tapped directly into identity theft victims' bank accounts and moved money around so they could retrieve it later.

Royals was responsible for about $2 million in fraudulent purchases, attempted purchases, bank withdrawals and account transfers, the government says. He'll be required to pay restitution, but the amount has not been determined.

As a group, the defendants have previous convictions ranging from theft by swindle to identity theft, assault, drugs, forgeries and receiving stolen property.

The case resulted from an investigation by the Minnesota Financial Crimes Task Force, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation Division. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Schommer.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465 Dan Browning • 612-673-4493