You pay for a tank of gas with plastic, stick your card back in your wallet and, next thing you know, somebody has used that number to withdraw cash.
One round of recent financial identity thefts snatched 291 debit or credit card numbers at two area gas stations, one in Roanoke and one in Collinsville, court papers said. But it was payback time when the alleged culprits stopped at the Blue Eagle Credit Union branch on Electric Road in Roanoke.
A credit union employee who remembered earlier suspect transactions by the same people called Roanoke County Police.
Officers arrived in time to halt their vehicle at the drive-up ATM. Before the day was out, its three occupants were in jail.
Alain Ayo-Una, 22, of Hialeah, Florida; Jeniffer Morejon-Garcia, 26; and Amehed Morejon, 37, were jailed on charges of conspiracy to commit access device fraud, aggravated identity theft, and aiding and abetting others in the commission of a crime.
Melissa McAllister, U.S. postal inspector, said in court papers that the three had driven 900 miles from South Florida and were “part of a large criminal group” engaged in financial identity theft. Charges are pending in Roanoke federal court.
Inside the rented car, officers found $10,278 in cash, two money orders worth $1,350, nine card-skimming devices, a card encoder, financial transaction receipts, a laptop, two thumb drives, a notebook and two passports, the filing said.
In addition, the vehicle contained 116 bank or credit union plastic cards, 112 of which had been re-encoded with stolen card numbers.
Identity theft stripped billions from American accounts in 2014, the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show.
The most common type involves stealing the account number or buying a stolen account number, a crime sometimes known as access device fraud, the bureau said.
Financial institutions and their customers play a critical role in the detection of fraudulent activity.
In September, police were alerted about a series of ATM cash withdrawals at the Clearbrook Walmart using debit and credit card numbers captured by skimmers, who manipulated pumps at the Clearbrook Mini Mart and a Collinsville gas station, according to a federal filing by McAllister.
Once a thief obtains a card number, an encoding device can be used to program that number onto a different card, such as an inexpensive gift card.
The encoding device model found in the suspects’ car was available Friday on Amazon for $68.
After the Walmart ATM withdrawals, police identified suspects from a store surveillance video, the filing said. A city police officer determined that the same suspects had withdrawn cash at Blue Eagle Credit Union locations.
A Blue Eagle employee obtained a vehicle license plate number and gave it to police. Police ran the plates, found a registered user and matched that person to an image captured by Walmart surveillance. This happened in late September.
On Nov. 1, a Freedom First Credit Union customer complained to county police that his or her card number had just been used to withdraw cash at the Blue Eagle location on Electric Road.
Blue Eagle’s cameras captured video of the transaction and the people and vehicle involved, and the staff determined that the same party had withdrawn money at all three Blue Eagle branches the same day. A Blue Eagle employee told police that they would probably be back. The next day, after the same vehicle returned, police moved in.
Blue Eagle Credit Union’s personnel used “heightened awareness and ingenuity” to complement the work of police, credit union spokeswoman Laurissa Grubb said.
Jackie Soni, owner of the Clearbrook Mini Mart, said he has worried about the effect of the ordeal on his customers.
A skimmer was found in the electronics of one of his pumps, behind a locked panel, he said, adding that he was unaware of it until contacted by police.
He changed the locks and instituted a daily check for new skimming devices. “I want it to be over,” Soni said.
No more skimming devices have been found since the initial discovery, Soni said.
Roanoke County Police Detective Betsy Van Patten said in an interview that at Soni’s station, “everything that could be done has been done to this point. He continues to be proactive instead of waiting to be reactive.”
Steve Wallace, owner of Wallace Exxon in Collinsville, the other station targeted, said his new pump locks are unpickable.