June 25, 2024

This week, the Justice Department declared that a Romanian individual has been given a six-year federal prison sentence for orchestrating an ATM skimming group. The group specialized in exploiting electronic surveillance techniques to pilfer bank details from individuals with low income. This issue is continuing to escalate nationwide.

The syndicate’s leader, Marius Oprea, 38, covertly fastened “skimming” tools, such as hidden cameras and card readers onto ATMs in California, as per a federal criminal complaint. The syndicate exploited the skimming equipment to duplicate debit cards of anti-poverty program participants, enabling the theft of unemployment benefits from the impoverished, said the prosecutors.

ATM skimming refers to the criminal act of affixing a hidden electronic gadget onto an ATM card reader. The reader then gathers data from a bank card’s magnetic strip each time a customer interacts with the machine, according to the FBI.

In recent times, federal prosecutors have pursued skimming fraud perpetrators across multiple states including Alabama, California, Nevada, and Florida. The data analytics corporation FICO recorded a significant surge in skimming frauds throughout the nation in 2023, with compromised debit cards increasing by 96%, and the FBI indicates that skimming drains over $1 billion from consumers and financial establishments each year.

The latest case involving the Romanian citizen, who confessed to a single charge of plotting to commit bank fraud in a California federal court, revolves around the application of increasingly sophisticated techniques to hijack crucial bank information from unsuspecting individuals at ATM machines. Most of those accused of these offenses originate from foreign nations, said the federal prosecutors.

“The incidents of skimming activity are growing considerably,” shared Andrew Brown, the assistant U.S. attorney who presided over the case with USA TODAY. “This crime is incredibly lucrative, and the culprits are elusive because they typically infiltrate the U.S. unlawfully and live incognito under false names and counterfeit documentation.”

International Oprea Operation Exposed by Federal and European Authorities

Oprea, suspected by prosecutors to have entered the nation illegally, got his skimming organization off the ground in 2023 or earlier, and they believe he continued activities until May 12, 2023, when his car and residence in Oxnard, California were subjected to a federal search.

The search turned up more than 20 duplicated ATM cards, a card reader, a fraudulent Slovakian passport portraying Oprea under a pseudonym, and a mobile phone housing images of over 100 cloned ATM cards, several ATM skimmers, and hidden cameras, as per a federal complaint obtained by USA TODAY.

The skimming tools were smuggled into the U.S. from Vienna, Austria, in packages labelled “audio equipment” and earmarked for Oprea’s pseudonym and a co-conspirator, stated the complaint. European authorities who inspected similar packages found them to contain speakers gutted and filled with the devices.

The cue to start tracing these packages came from Romanian law enforcement authorities, who also tipped off U.S. agents about Paul Kimpian, a suspected accomplice, mentions the complaint.

Kimpian and another accomplice were apprehended in Ventura County but managed to escape to unknown locations after eliminating their electronic monitoring devices and securing release on cash bonds, as federal documents reveal.

Exploiting Vulnerable Populations

The Vulnerable Communities Task Force, a team devoted to prosecuting those who exploit communities that are less inclined to report crimes and have limited legal options, including “individuals dependent on public benefits, seniors, and those hesitant to seek aid from government authorities,” conducted the investigation in this case, states the Justice Department.

“The victims aren’t Fortune 500 CEOs, they’re people who need financial resources and crave it urgently,” commented Ciaran McEvoy, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office. “When they reach the ATM, they discover a meager amount of cash left in their accounts.”

He added that these groups were exploited due to the relative ease of duplicating the cards provided by the public programs they utilize. In early 2023, 15 individuals were arrested in the California district and were accused of similarly exploiting public-benefits recipients via skimming scams.

Rising Incidence of Skimming Fraud

Nationwide, authorities have prosecuted several fraudsters who utilized skimming devices to rob millions of dollars from Americans at fuel pumps, cash registers, and ATMs.

FICO monitored almost 1,600 skimming incidents last year, up from 1,100 in 2022. The data analytics company also observed a surge in scams at bank ATMs but noted that the majority of fraudsters continued to target locations outside banks like standalone terminals in convenience stores.

In February, a scheme orchestrated by five individuals was exposed in New York, that targeted over 600 bank accounts. Federal prosecutors stated that the group allegedly installed devices and cameras onto ATMs to capture victims’ bank account details and PINs, which were then transferred onto fake debit cards to facilitate purchases and withdraw money.

In June, a Las Vegas resident received a prison term exceeding four years for a $5 million skimming fraud operation that targeted customers at gas stations in Nevada and Southern California.

Authorities in Florida arrested two individuals last April who allegedly deployed skimming equipment and counterfeit cards to extract over $