Feds Nab Suspected Romanian Bank Skimmer
Investigation Spanned from Columbia County N.Y. to Bogota, Colombia
ALBANY, N.Y. — They stole customers’ account data and personal identification numbers at upstate New York ATMs, then used that information to loot those accounts via ATMs in New York City, according to court documents.
Now federal authorities believe they’ve captured the other half of that bank-skimming team. Following his extradition from Columbia, Gheorghe Cirstea, 31, was charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud, access device fraud, and aggravated identity theft here on Dec. 21, 2018.
Cirstea’s partner, Ilie Sitariu, 39, is currently serving a four-year prison sentence in connection with the crimes, according to federal prosecutors. Cirstea is facing up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted — and that could cap a case that began with the arrest of Sitariu in 2015.
Coincidentally, some of the upstate banks are located in Columbia County, N.Y. What’s more, Cirstea and Sitariu may have been undone by the same technology they used to commit the crimes, court papers indicate.
The men, who are Romanian citizens, conspired to install hidden pinhole cameras at ATMs and skimming devices in the ATM card slots, according to the documents. They used putty knives, putty applicators, Play-doh, picks and double-sided tape to install the cameras, the documents indicate.
The pinhole cameras captured images of customers entering their personal identification numbers, while the skimmers captured the account information encoded on the magnetic strips of their ATM cards, according to the indictment.
“The specific device used is often a realistic-looking card reader placed over the factory-installed card reader,” the FBI explained in a bulletin. “Customers insert their ATM card into the phony reader, and their account info is swiped and stored on a small attached laptop or cell phone or sent wirelessly to the criminals waiting nearby.”
Sitariu — the apparent point man for the criminal operation — installed skimmers and cameras in ATMs during the late summer and fall of 2015, according to the indictment. He targeted ATMS at First Niagara, TrustCo and Berkshire Banks in the New York towns of Hudson, Chatam, New Lebanon, and Delmar, along with one in the western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington.
On Sept. 26, 2015, Cirstea installed a skimmer and camera in a First Niagara Bank ATM in Valatie, N.Y., the indictment alleges.
In between skimmer installations, the pair used data they’d captured from the compromised accounts to create bogus ATM cards, court documents said. They then visited Citibank ATMs in Queens and Manhattan, and used the cards to withdrawal a total of $127,389 from those compromised bank accounts.
But the bank ATMs had cameras of their own, which recorded the pair’s skimming activities. Police and bank officials were on the lookout for Sitariu, and their vigilance paid off.
On the morning of Oct. 24, 2015, employees at the New Lebanon Berkshire Bank branch saw Sitariu approach their ATM carrying a black bag, according to an FBI affidavit. They recognized him as the suspect in the skimming incidents, and quickly called New York State Police.
A state trooper arrived at the bank, spotted Sitariu sitting in 2012 Chrysler 300 and struck up a conversation with him, according to the affidavit. Though Sitariu denied approaching the ATM, he was carrying something that pinned him to the incident.
“During a frisk for weapons or other dangerous items, the trooper located a receipt for the above listed bank with a time stamp of approximately 8:30 a.m.,” the affidavit states.
The trooper detained Sitariu, and FBI agents were on the scene moments later.
“Further, after arriving at the location, I examined the ATM machine at the bank and discovered a card skimmer within the card slot and a hidden video camera designed to look like part of the structure of the ATM,” an FBI agent stated.
Later that day, a Columbia County judge signed a search warrant for Sitariu’s vehicle, where trooper’s found a black bag similar to the one bank employees saw.
“That bag contained tools, additional card skimmers and both regular and dark glasses worn by Sitariu in previous incidents,” the agent stated. FBI agents charged Sitariu with bank fraud two days later, and a grand jury charged him with aggravated identity theft, conspiracy and three counts of access device fraud in an indictment handed up the following September.
Though the grand jury also charged Cirstea, his name was sealed in the indictment. Sitariu pleaded guilty to all the charges in May 2017, and in March 2018, Cirstea was arrested while traveling through Bogota, Colombia, prosecutors said.
Columbian authorities extradited Cirstea to the United States in October, and his name was unsealed at his arraignment. He’s in the custody of the U.S. Marshals pending further court proceedings.
This story originally appeared on www.empirecrime.com