With the arrest of a Canadian man in Quincy, police say they’ve made the first dent in a sophisticated scheme to drain people’s bank accounts by secretly installing bank card readers and spy cameras to record passwords and steal thousands of dollars.
Police say they’ve made the first dent in a sophisticated scheme to drain people’s bank accounts.
The Bulgarian native arrested in Quincy and charged with trying to use a forged ATM card at a Citizens Bank on Hancock Street is part of a much larger operation of so-called skimmers, police say. Skimming is the practice of using bank-card readers to swipe people’s account information off ATM cards and capturing PIN numbers with tiny cameras.
The information is then downloaded to a blank gift card or store card – any card with a magnetic strip will do – and used with the PIN number to access bank accounts. So far, police say, the skimming operation uncovered in Quincy has netted thieves hundreds of thousands of dollars across eastern Massachusetts. A Quincy police sergeant is among those whose information was stolen.
And the number of victims and dollars stolen is expected to grow. “It’s already into six figures,” Quincy Detective Lt. John Steele said. “This is a sophisticated operation on a very large scale. I’ve never seen anything like it in 16 years as a Quincy police officer.”
Police arrested Ivaylo Hristov, 28, of Thornhill, Ontario, shortly after 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Citizens Bank at 371 Hancock St. after he allegedly withdrew $500 from someone’s account.
Hristov had earlier been caught on a security camera as he installed a card-reading device.
At the time of his arrest, authorities say, Hristov was carrying eight Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards that had been re-coded with people’s bank card information.
He was arraigned Thursday afternoon in Quincy District Court for larceny over $250, improper use of a credit card, larceny of a credit card, and identity fraud.
He was ordered held on $1 million cash bail and must surrender his passport in order to be released. He was also ordered to pay $150 before his next appearance.
Norfolk County Assistant District Attorney Jason Mohan said Hristov is an extreme flight risk.
Hristov also faces charges out of Milton.
The ring first reared its head in the United States in November in Chicago, police said. More recently, it’s been operating in Greater Boston.
Similar operations have been detected in Milton, Roslindale, Dorchester, Braintree, Weymouth, and at least one other Quincy bank.
The Secret Service has been investigating since Chicago. Now, it’s working with police in that city along with police in Greater Boston to try to catch members of the ring.
Steele said members of the ring have been brazenly installing homemade card-reading devices and hidden cameras inside ATM vestibules. “They don’t even try to hide their faces,” from the bank security cameras, he said.
That’s how bank employees knew to be on the lookout for Hristov.
The cameras the thieves use, he said, “are real James Bond stuff.” The lenses are small enough to hide in a pen.
On Thursday, police searched a storage unit in Weymouth and found computer equipment and other gadgets they believe Hristov and his partners used to steal information and then money.
Hristov, who is a naturalized Canadian citizen, is believed to be part of a ring that includes other Bulgarians who’ve been sending the proceeds from their skimming back to Bulgaria.
Patriot Ledger staff reporter Amy Littlefield contributed to this report. Robert Sears may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How it works
THE SKIMMER: A “skimmer” goes over the scanner in which bank customers insert their ATM cards. To the casual eye, it may look like a normal card scanner.
THE CAMERA: A tiny camera, the size of a ballpoint pen, is hidden in stripping above the key pad. The camera captures PIN numbers as people punch them in.
THE INFO: The video and the information gleaned from the skimmer goes to a laptop, perhaps in a nearby parking lot, using wireless technology.
THE MONEY: Scammers, with their laptops, download codes and PIN numbers. They can then recode any card with a magnetic strip as a copy of your ATM card.
How not to get skimmed
To protect yourself:
- Check your account statements for any irregularities. Once a card is “cloned,” it can be used at gas stations, supermarkets, ATMs, or anywhere debit cards are accepted. Contact local police and your bank if you have any charges you didn’t make.
- Conceal your PIN number with your hand as you punch it into the ATM keypad.
- If you see any unusual devices in an ATM booth, contact police and your bank.