Scammers 'skimming' millions from area's ATMs
Bank-card skimming is on the rise, and federal prosecutors and agents are warning consumers to be alert when completing ATM transactions.
Seattle Times staff reporter
You know a crime is on the rise when its victims include the chief federal law-enforcement officer in Western Washington.
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said Monday that the recent theft of a "substantial amount" of money from her personal bank account should, as much as anything, alert consumers to the potential that even the most mundane of bank transactions — ATM withdrawals — pose a risk of being ripped off.
Durkan, flanked by Robert Kierstead, the assistant special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the Secret Service, said at a news conference Monday that the crime of bank-card "skimming" is on the rise in the region. In the past week alone, six people have been arrested for skimming nearly $1 million in bank and consumer losses, Durkan said.
At least three other major prosecutions are ongoing, she said.
The crime involves placement of tiny electronic "skimming" devices on ATMs to steal credit- or debit-card information from customers. Such devices — some the size of a postage stamp and capable of holding information from thousands of cards — usually are coupled with hidden "pinhole" cameras focused on ATM keypads to record personal-identification numbers (PINs).
The thieves synchronize the data from the skimmer with the video to match PINs to the bank-card data. They then forge new cards and use the PINs to access and drain customers' accounts.
On Monday, Kierstead showed off a "treasure trove" of devices seized by his agents in recent searches, including tiny card readers secreted in realistic ATM faceplates molded from ceramic and plastic. More insidious are actual card slots, purchased from teller-machine manufacturers, outfitted by the thieves with card readers that can be downloaded through a USB port.
The card information is coupled with video of the victim keying in his or her PIN taken by a hidden "pinhole" camera or keystroke data from phony keypads. The thieves download the card information onto a routine gift card — one group recently was favoring QFC Advantage cards — and with the stolen PIN, begin systematically emptying the victim's bank account.
Durkan said it's estimated that skimming is a $1 billion-a-year crime. She said the most recent arrests by the Secret Service in Seattle likely dismantled the largest operating skimming ring on the West Coast.
Those two defendants — Ismail Sali and Eugen Tirca — both are Romanian, as are a number of others involved in this and other skimming cases under prosecution in Western Washington. At least four of Sali's known associates are Romanians in the country illegally, according to court documents. Durkan said the task force is looking at international connections.
"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," she said
Sali and Tirca have ties to others already being prosecuted in the district for skimming-related crimes, the documents say. Some of those individuals were skimming from European bank accounts, the documents say.
In another case, nine skimming devices were placed on Seattle-area ATMs owned by BECU in one 30-day period in September and October of last year. The accounts of 281 customers were compromised. BECU, the nation's fourth-largest credit union, since has installed anti-skimming software on most of its 180 ATMs in the area.
Durkan recalled that she was in a hurry and on her way out of town when she stopped at an ATM kiosk. She noted the card-activated lock on the door was broken. "I thought it was unusual," she said.
Durkan checked her account after she returned and found $1,000 missing.
Her case is being investigated by another federal jurisdiction, she said.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.