Prosecutors crack down on ATM skimming

September 27, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Federal authorities urged consumers to remain vigilant for devices attached to ATMs for skimming — using high-tech equipment to steal bank account information.

Thieves install high-tech devices on ATMs to collect account information and personal-information numbers from consumers. The setup usually includes a tiny camera aimed at the ATM keypad to record consumers’ entries and a storage device to record the numbers from thousands of cards.

The top federal prosecutor in Western Washington, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, said skimming is on the rise in the region. Thieves even used skimming devices to steal money from Durkan’s bank account recently.

What to know

Consumers can follow tips from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle and the U.S. Secret Service to avoid skimming scams:

  • If the access door to a lobby ATM is broken, do not use the ATM; go somewhere else.
  • If a bank or another facility includes more than one ATM — and a sign has been placed on one of the units saying it is out of service — go somewhere else. The sign could be directing traffic to the machine equipped with skimming devices.
  • Check the machine before putting a card in. Is the card slot securely in the machine? Has anything been installed around the edges of the machine to possibly conceal a camera? Is glue or a sticky substance around the keypad or card slot?
  • Always attempt to cover your hand when you enter your PIN, so if a camera is installed, the numbers cannot be captured.
  • Watch your account activity and report any unauthorized credit or debit charges to your bank immediately.

Throughout September, the office’s Electronic Crimes Task Force arrested several people in Washington for using skimming devices to drain bank accounts and wrack up credit card charges. The suspects caught in the sweep included a 34-year-old Issaquah man arrested in Eastern Washington.

The task force, led by the U.S. Secret Service, has made skimming arrests a priority in the past 18 months.

“The suspects arrested over the last few weeks account for more than $1 million in losses to banks and consumers,” Durkan said in a statement issued Sept. 19. “We believe that with this most recent arrest, we have located and dismantled the nerve center of one of the most prolific rings, which used illegal immigrants from Romania to commit the frauds.”

(Durkan also leads the Justice Department’s cybercrime and intellectual property enforcement working group.)

Throughout the skimming crackdown, investigators seized forms for making card skimmers, fake faceplates for ATM machines, gift cards and electronic equipment for encoding stolen account data onto the cards.

Durkan also announced the arrests of Kirkland residents Ismail Sali and Eugen Tirca for possible skimming activity. Tirca is a Romanian citizen in the United States illegally.

Investigators found documents at the suspects’ Kirkland residence tying Sali to people arrested and prosecuted in the past for skimming. If convicted, Sali and Tirca faced up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The arrests came less than a month after authorities arrested Issaquah resident Mihai Elekes in Pasco. Prosecutors said he placed a device on a Chase Bank ATM in late August to read customers’ debit and credit card numbers. Elekes is due in federal court in Seattle for arraignment Sept. 29.

Investigators said Elekes and a 55-year-old Renton man, Ionut Buzbuchi, skimmed account information in Washington, Idaho and Arizona. If convicted, the men could face up to 30 years in prison.

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.

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

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