NEW YORK – Bank tellers, restaurant workers and other service employees in New York lifted credit card data from foreign tourists and residents as part of an identity theft ring that stretched to China, Europe and the Middle East and victimized thousands, authorities said Friday.
In total, 111 people were arrested after a more than $13 million spending spree in luxury goods, and five separate criminal enterprises were dismantled. District Attorney Richard Brown in the New York borough of Queens called it the largest fraud case he'd seen in his two decades in office. The charges include enterprise corruption, theft and grand larceny.
"These weren't holdups at gunpoint, but the impact on victims was the same," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. "They were robbed."
Authorities say the graft operated like this:
At least three bank workers, retail employees and restaurant workers would steal credit card numbers in a process known as skimming, in which workers take information when a card is swiped for payment and illegally sell the credit card numbers. Other members of the criminal ring would steal card information online.
The numbers were given to teams of manufacturers who would forge Visas, MasterCards, Discover and American Express cards. Realistic identifications were made with the stolen data.
Teams of criminal "shoppers" would use the cards for spending sprees at higher-end stores including Apple, Bloomingdale's and Macy's. The groups resold the merchandise to locations in China, Europe and the Middle East.
More than $13 million was spent on iPads, iPhones, computers, watches and handbags from Gucci and Louis Vuitton, authorities said. The suspects also charged expensive hotel rooms and rented private jets and fancy cars, prosecutors said.
"Thieves have an amazing knowledge of how to use technology," Kelly said. "The schemes and the imagination that is developing these days are days are really mind-boggling."
Detectives with language skills spent hours translating Russian, Farsi and Arabic during the investigation, Kelly said.
Part of the problem, especially for foreign tourists, is that credit card companies in the U.S. do not install special microchips that make skimming more difficult, said Deputy Inspector Gregory Antonsen of the NYPD's organized theft and identity theft task force. But he said the companies work with police to help fight theft.
"So if you're a victim of a loss ... you will get your money back," Antonsen said.