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ID thieves steal more than $75,000 in ATM-card scheme at local gas station

July 16, 2007|By Michael Alexander

Huntington Beach police are looking for three identity thieves they believe stole more than $75,000 using a credit-debit card skimming device at a Brookhurst Avenue ARCO station.

It was the most recent of three such incidents over the last two months, all involving Huntington Beach ARCO stations and similar devices, police said.

Numerous customers who went to the ARCO station, 21452 Brookhurst St., on June 21 or June 22 found someone was using their ATM accounts, Huntington Beach police Det. David Humphreys said.

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The thieves can place the device, which fits over the company’s ATM-card swipe and keypad, quickly enough so that no one notices. It can be installed in 20 seconds, Humphreys added. In the most recent case, the thieves likely left the camouflaged phony device running for a couple of days. It silently copied ATM card information and took down personal identification numbers before the thieves retrieved their device – a 15 second job – and left.

The public almost never knows something is wrong, Humphreys said. The equipment looks like the real thing and it’s too easy to install when nobody’s looking. But sometimes a malfunction when entering a personal identification number could be a tip-off, because the device isn’t meant to last very long.

“It’s very inconspicuous,” Humphreys said. “That’s the hard part about it. For the most part we’re not going to know at the time.”

They also choose carefully when they picked ARCO, though not due to any specific lack of security at the company’s stations. Because ARCO doesn’t offer credit cards like its rivals, most customers use their bank ATM cards — fetching more money for thieves, Humphreys said.

The other two recent cases remain unsolved and are still under investigation. But since such theft takes expertise and special equipment, criminals tend to specialize, Humphreys said.

“It seems to be a trend,” he said. “They do this basically on an organized crime-type basis. They know how to mirror the quality of equipment that needs to be installed. It’s a very calculating, creative network of criminals that are doing these skimming-device crimes.”

But this time police got lucky. They have surveillance photos from several banks where counterfeit cards with the stolen information were used, including Comerica Bank and Downey Savings in Huntington Beach. The suspects took cash from account after account for 35 minutes at a time, police said. The grainy photos show a man and two women, two of whom got out of a maroon or burgundy SUV with gold or tan trim, probably a Ford Explorer, Humphreys said.

“Although we have some ATM photographs of the suspects, we still need to get these folks identified,” he said.

The public is asked to call Humphreys at (714) 536-5953 or Det. Johnson at (714) 960-8834 with any information about the suspects.

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