As part of its investigation leading to recent card-fraud arrests, the U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force revealed some of the latest tactics being used to snag card data to conduct fraudulent transactions.
The suspects in most of the recent cases are accused of attaching devices to the door-entry card readers on banks' ATM vestibules. They also allegedly installed wireless pinhole video cameras to view and record PIN codes as they were typed. The stolen data was then used to make fraudulent transactions or cash withdrawals using counterfeit cards.
In some cases, according to the Secret Service, the suspects attached an "out of service" sign to the ATMs they did not tamper with. Customers, seeing the sign, instead used a compromised ATM.
Beneyam Asrat G-Sellassie, of Seattle, was the most prolific suspected skimmer among three men arrested and charged with multiple counts of bank fraud, according to a Sept. 8 complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle.
G-Sellassie is accused of being involved in more than 20 skimming incidents in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada that affected as many as 1,800 customers' bank accounts. At least 573 customers suffered losses from fraudulent withdrawals and purchases. Losses associated with G-Sellassie's alleged crimes exceed $390,000, the court said.
Washington police arrested G-Sellassie on Sept. 10, 2010, during a routine traffic stop. Police say they found evidence of narcotics in his vehicle, along with a significant amount of card-skimming equipment. Investigators also found the addresses of several ATMs and notations accompanying them that said "no" and "very good."
G-Sellassie had 22 gift cards in his possession at the time of his arrest that had been converted to function as counterfeit ATM cards, according to the complaint.
Two other men were arrested for allegedly conspiring to commit hundreds of card-skimming crimes across Washington, Idaho and Arizona beginning as early as May, 2009.
Ionut Buzbuchi was arrested Sept. 7 and Mihai Elekes has been in custody for several weeks on suspicion of card-skimming, the court said. Estimated losses associated with the pair's alleged crimes exceed $160,000, the court said.
U.S. secret service agents closed in on Elekes on Aug. 28 after observing him picking up a suspected co-conspirator near a JPMorgan Chase & Co. ATM. Video footage from a wireless pinhole camera that was placed near an ATM contained images that appeared to show the suspects' apartment before the device was planted. Video images found on another seized pinhole camera showed the defendants assembling card-skimming devices and talking to one another.
A surveillance video from a Bellevue, Wash., bank shows the defendants spending more than an hour measuring an ATM machine and examining it without
conducting a transaction.
"At one point during the video clip, Buzbuchi pulls on the ATM machine with such force that the [surveillance] camera shakes while he manipulates the face of the machine," the complaint states.
The two men allegedly took turns working on the ATM and watching the bank's parking lot. At several points Buzbuchi is shown talking on his cell phone.
Elekes also appears in the same video wearing a baseball cap that says "Game Over." In other investigations, suspects involved in skimming wore baseball caps pulled down over their faces to obscure their identity, the complaint says.
G-Sellassie faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while Buzbuchi and Elekes may face up to 30 years in prison, according to the Seattle U.S. Attorney's office. Elekes will appear in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in Yakima, Wash.