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ID theft ring hits county

When she bought gas last week at a Yuba County service station, Kathy French of North San Juan suddenly was the victim of an elaborate, high-tech identity theft scheme.

With the swipe of her ATM card at the gas terminal, a ring of thieves was able to obtain every bit of personal information encoded on her card’s metallic strip, as well as her PIN number.

With that information, they were able to clean out her checking account, and much of her savings.



“You work hard to get by and you wonder why it happened to you,” French said from her home Friday. “These people don’t care who they’re affecting.”

According to Placer County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Hudson, a group of as many as eight people from the Los Angeles and Riverside areas have been attaching “skimming devices” and small cameras to gas terminals and ATM machines in at least six locations in Nevada, Yuba, Placer and Sutter counties, as well as some areas around Riverside, since Nov. 2004.




As part of an ongoing investigation, Hudson said detectives learned the thieves applied the skimming devices with two-way tape to the outside of card slots.

“The device records everything on your card’s metallic strip,” Hudson said, including a bank account number, account balance and social security number.

A small, official-looking camera with a one-way mirror attached with two-way tape at the top of the ATM or gas terminal records video of a customer punching in a PIN number, Hudson said.

“(Thieves) pick up the device, get to a computer and download the information and compare it with the video,” Hudson said.

With a computer, the thieves are then able to encode a gift card or a hotel room key card – anything with a metallic strip – with the victim’s information and then use the counterfeit card to access bank accounts at an ATM.

“It’s like people who cook meth,” Hudson said. “Once they learn how to do it, it’s how they make their living.”

Hudson arrested the group’s suspected ring leader, 32-year-old Claudiu Hotea of Riverside, while he was using a card encoded with French’s ATM information at Thunder Valley Casino earlier this week.

With Hotea was Emanuel Moldoveanu, 34, Sacramento, who was also arrested for his involvement in the ring. Hudson estimates there are still two to six more suspects at large in the Placer/Nevada/Yuba counties area.

There are more than 100 victims, Hudson said, and he expects more to emerge. So far, more than $100,000 in cash has been stolen from victims.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hudson said between calls notifying victims Friday. “This trick is becoming more prevalent, and it’s not the last time this is going to happen.”

He recommends people using ATM or gas payment terminals to inspect them for unstable equipment before use.

“Just give it an extra look before putting the card in there,” Hudson said.

French said she and her husband Roger have an 18-year-old son with Cystic Fibrosis and with the burden of his medical care, the couple lives paycheck to paycheck.

Without a penny in her checking account and $700 in overdraft fees taken from her Wells Fargo savings account, she said the scheme has ruined her financially.

French learned she was a victim when Hudson called her eight days after her information was stolen. She had no reason to check her balance and her overdraft protection prevented her bank from alerting her that her balance was in the red. She told her bank’s fraud department of the scheme, and they will replace the money in increments, she said, as they perform their own investigation.

“It’s the end of the month all my bills are due,” she said. “I’ve got to call my mortgage company, credit card company, insurance company and tell them I don’t have anything right now. Don’t these idiots (thieves) realize they’re dealing with people’s lives?”

She said she will no longer use her ATM card.

“Only cash and credit cards from now on,” she said. “You really have to be careful.”

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To contact Robyn Moormeister, e-mail robynm @theunion.com or call 477-4236.


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