ROMEO (WWJ) – A sting operation helped U.S. Postal Inspectors track down a local letter carrier who was allegedly stealing mail from customers on her delivery route.

According to a criminal complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court, Romeo mail carrier Cynthia Winters is charged with theft of mail by a postal employee. She was released on a $10,000 bond and is due  back in court for a preliminary hearing on March 21.

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The United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General launched an investigation around Christmas time after several residents in Romeo complained that gift cards they sent out weren’t making it to those intended to receive them.

Investigators were able to track the gift cards and found that they were in fact being used at several gas stations, retail outlets and food stores in Macomb County in the days after they were sent out in the mail.

After reviewing security footage from the stores where the gift cards were fraudulently used, federal investigators soon focused on Winters.

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On February 14, officials used a dummy letter marked “U.S. Currency,” which contained $40 and a special device that would send investigators a signal if the envelope was opened. Authorities say the alarm went off just 10 minutes after Winters left the post office with that day’s deliveries.

Federal agents who were following Winters pulled her over in the parking lot of the Ford engine plant on 32 Mile Road, where they reportedly found a gift card Winters’ purse that was addressed to a customer on her delivery route, along with several other pieces of opened mail in her vehicle.

Investigators say Winters eventually admitted to stealing approximately 20 items from the mail since the summer of 2012. She allegedly told investigators that she took the gift cards to pay for things for her six kids and 17 grandchildren.

“I didn’t have anything to give them so I would look for the gift cards and cash inside the mail,” Winters said, according to court records.

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If convicted as charged, Winters faces up to five years in prison.