Police are warning holiday shoppers to be careful while using Westchester ATMs after uncovering an elaborate ATM skimming scheme they say netted a group of thieves about $1 million over the last few months.
A joint task force involving the Westchester County Police, United States Secret Service and nine local police departments worked together to make five arrests. The scheme involved the placement of "dip readers", which read ATM cards when they are placed in a machine, paired with a small pin-hole camera used to obtain card-holders' pin numbers, police said. The obtained personal information was then copied onto blank cards and used to make withdrawals at another bank.
Police believe those arrested are low-level criminals working for a larger organized crime group.
"We believe it's an organized group and in some degree connected," said George Longworth, Westchester County Department of Public Safety commissioner. "Like many other crimes, the people who are at the lowest level can be easily replaced once they are arrested."
There is no indication at this time that specific areas have been targeted, and police are keeping an eye on banks in all parts of Westchester County. ATM skimmers have been found in ATMs throughout the New York Metro area, but Longworth said Westchester might have been targeted because ATMs are used commonly here.
"It's widespread, it's across the county," said Longworth.
Police continue to investigate and would not discuss in detail how large the organized crime group could be or how many other people they believe are involved.
Planting a skimming device takes only a couple of minutes and once in an ATM machine they are very difficult to notice, police said.
Bronxville Police Chief Christopher Satriale said 330 accounts were compromised at a Chase branch on Parkway Road in Bronxville in October.
"On two consecutive Sundays we lost $330,000 as a result of the skimmers," he said.
Police said none of those arrested are from Westchester County and that some are not United States citizens. All of the suspects are of Eastern European descent.
Richard Merca, 19, of Palestine, IL, is accused of planting an ATM in the Jefferson Valley Mall in Yorktown Heights. He was arrested on Nov. 13. Victor Vdila, 21, of Astoria, Queens, is accused of attempting a skimming fraud at a Yonkers bank and was arrested on Oct. 16. Istvan Casplar, 29, and Florinel Gavat, 40, both of Astoria, Queens, were charged on Oct. 23 with placing a device at a Greenburgh ATM. Ionut Vasilas, 23, of Chicago, IL, was arrested on Nov. 6 and is accused of attempting a skimming fraud on South Broadway in Tarrytown.
All have been charged with possession of forgery devices, a felony.
Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino urged shoppers to take simple precautions while using ATMs during the holiday season, including covering your hand while entering pin numbers and being aware of loosened card readers.
"Whether it is ATM skimming or other schemes, criminals are always looking to take advantage of shoppers during the busy holiday season," Astorino said. "Black Friday and beyond is not only an opportunity for bargains, it is an opportunity for thieves."
Anyone noticing something different about an ATM in the area is encouraged to call police.