Issaquah man faces state, federal charges in ATM skimming scheme

September 13, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Prosecutors said a local man arrested in Eastern Washington for collecting card information at a Pasco ATM is connected to a scheme responsible for skimming more than $500,000 at ATMs across the West.

Issaquah resident Mihai Elekes, 34, faces state and federal charges because prosecutors said he placed a device on a Chase Bank ATM to read customers’ debit and credit card numbers.

The state charge in Franklin County Superior Court is for the unlawful factoring of transactions charge related to the ATM skimming incident.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors said Elekes and a Renton man skimmed account information in Washington, Idaho and Arizona.

The men targeted ATMs at BECU, First Tech Federal and Watermark credit unions, as well as Chase Bank branches, prosecutors said. Investigators said the men sometimes installed the skimmer on the access door to the lobby housing the ATM.

Elekes and the Renton resident, 55-year-old Ionut Buzbuchi, came to the attention of law enforcement officials for possible skimming activity in 2009.

In Pasco, Franklin County prosecutors said Elekes and a 40-year-old accomplice installed a card reader and mirrors attached to metal strips on the ATM.

Pasco police officers, Secret Service agents and bank security agents arrested Elekes and Janos Chertes late Aug. 28 in a sting operation at the bank.

The suspects placed the card reader on the ATM at about 6 a.m. on a Sunday — a day the bank was closed, authorities said in court documents. Officials then watched the ATM and waited for the suspects to return.

Prosecutors said the device had also been placed on the same ATM on several Sundays in July and August.

The attorney for Chertes, a Hungarian citizen in the United States on a tourist visa, withdrew after a possible conflict due to representing Elekes as well.

If convicted on the seldom-used unlawful factoring of transactions charge, Elekes could face up to 10 years in prison and up to a $20,000 fine under state law. Elekes pleaded not guilty to the state charges Sept. 6.

The penalty for the federal charges is stiffer. If convicted, Elekes and Buzbuchi could face up to 30 years in prison.

Elekes appeared in U.S. District Court in Yakima on Sept. 8 — the same day Buzbuchi and another skimming suspect, Beneyam Asrat G-Sellassie, a 22-year-old Seattle man, appeared in federal court in Seattle.

G-Sellassie faces a possession of counterfeit or unauthorized access devices in connection to a June arrest in Seattle. Investigators suspect G-Sellassie is connected to more than 20 skimming incidents in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Elekes remained in custody at the Yakima County Jail without bail late last week, pending a transfer to Seattle for another appearance in federal court.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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