Two-Dozen CUs, Banks Victimized In ATM 'Skimming' Scheme In Calif.

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More than two-dozen credit unions and banks were victimized by a debit card "skimming" scheme in which a criminal gang of Romanian immigrants manufactured phony cards and used them to withdraw hundreds of thousands of dollars at casinos in Northern California, law enforcement officials charged last week.

Among the victims were members of The Golden 1 CU, SAFE CU, Travis CU, Technology CU, San Mateo CU, Sierra Central CU, Star One CU, Valley CU, Sacramento CU, Inwood CU, Harbor FCU and Navy FCU.

The gang apparently attached the skimming devices to gas pumps at area Arco AM/PM stations, then used PINs obtained from the skimmers to manufacture their own debit cards, according to Det. Jim Hudson, of the Placer County Sheriff's Department. The Arco stations were the primary target of the gang because they are the only gas stations in the area that will allow credit/debit cards to be used as debit only. This requires the customer to enter their PIN in order to receive their fuel, said Hudson. The skimmers were apparently attached at the pumps but have not been recovered yet, he said.

The scheme was traced to the Arco stations because hundreds of victims were reporting to authorities that they had been charged with unauthorized transactions from Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, Calif., a Sacramento suburb.

When police staked out the casino they arrested five suspects trying to use phony debit cards. The gang had used phony cards to try to make as much as $240,000 in ATM withdrawals at the Thunder Valley Casino and succeeded in withdrawing $110,000, Hudson said.

But the gang is believed to have hit most or all of the 10 casinos in Northern California. "We have identified eight different locations, so far," said Hudson, estimating as much as $500,000 may have been stolen through the scheme.

Once the debit card information was skimmed the gang would act fast in order to circumvent daily cash withdrawal limits on the cards, said Hudson. So they would manufacture a phony card, go to one of the casinos, obtain cash in the early evening after an institution had closed down, withdraw the maximum allowable of cash, then wait until after midnight when a new daily maximum applied and withdraw additional cash-all before the victim knew his or her account had been tapped.

While this particular gang hit area casinos in Northern California, authorities have evidence that the group is also using the skimming devices in other parts of California, said Hudson.

Alleged ringleaders Claudiu Hotea, 34, and Emanuel Moldoveanu, both Romanian citizens, were arrested Jan. 24 and charged with burglary, conspiracy and possession of forged access cards. Surveillance videos at Thunder Valley Casino show Hotea withdrawing cash at the times that victims' cards were used. He was arrested at the casino in possession of five Starbucks gift cards with victims' debit card numbers encoded on them. Moldoveanu was arrested with Hoteu. More arrests are expected.

Hoteu was released on bond but then rearrested after authorities realized he had an earlier conviction on similar charges involving another skimming device in 2001.

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