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Prosecutors in California say the Romanian mafia has given a new look to an old scam — debit card skimming — by placing devices to steal personal information on self-checkout machines in grocery stores.

Debit card skimmers have long been problematic at gas stations and ATMs. Now a highly organized network of crooks is branching out. 

"They’ll have people sitting outside a Walmart or a Target, and it looks like they’re panhandling," prosecutors told Fox News Digital. "Sometimes they’ll have a couple of kids. And they are actually using Bluetooth technology that’s connected to the skimmers inside the stores. So it's like a two for one, getting cash that people give them and stealing the numbers off the skimmers."


A combination photo showing Florin Duduianu as well as a batch of cloned debit cards

Florin Duduianu, inset, convicted of fraud and theft in California, is also one of Romania's most wanted criminals. A screenshot from TikTok, right, shows a suspected mafioso posing with an Audi paid for with stolen funds in a handicapped parking spot. On the left are debit card clones seized during the arrest. (Orange County)

Surveillance video obtained by the El Cajon Police Department shows suspects can place a skimmer over the checkout's credit card swipe in just seconds — and they look almost exactly like the real thing.

Police recommend tugging on a credit card swipe before inserting your card. If it wobbles or comes off, it's fake.

Authorities say they've already busted dozens of suspects, most of them with ties to organized crime in Romania.

Skimmer installation split with police officer holding fake and real credit card swipers side by side

Stills from surveillance video show suspects installing skimming devices over the credit card swiper at a grocery store cash register. Inset: An El Cajon, California, police officer holds a skimmer next to an authentic device to show the similarities. (El Cajon Police Department)

And despite large busts in December and January of dozens of suspects in the U.S., Europe and Mexico, where they are teaming up with cartels in tourist hot spots like Tulum, the thefts are increasing as thieves double down on their efforts, authorities said. 

They could be raking in up to $9 million a month — much of it at taxpayers' expense.

Suspect wearing designer shirt and jeans, sitting on Audi sports car in Los Angeles

A suspect whose face was blurred by authorities poses in designer clothes on the back of an Audi sports car in Los Angeles. (Orange County DA)

The skimmers, which can target EBT card users as well, have allegedly drained accounts the moment that the state releases monthly payments, according to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer's office, which announced a major crackdown on such crimes earlier this year. As a result, more than $100 million worth of thefts robbed taxpayer-funded welfare programs and their recipients.

"The victims are single mothers struggling to put a roof over their children's heads and food on the table and hardworking people who need a helping hand who find themselves standing at the checkout line with bags full of groceries only to be humiliated when they find that they have no money in their account because a thief has surreptitiously taken everything," Spitzer said in a statement. "Meanwhile, the thieves are using this money to fund organized crime, to buy luxury cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and to lead a life of luxury that the true recipients can only dream about."

On top of that, the porous southern border gives the mobsters a steady supply of new muscle, while a combination of lax bail policies and incomplete criminal records allow members to cut off their ankle monitors and flee justice if they get arrested.

Skimming devices disguised as signs and face plates that could blend in with the surface they are placed on.

Skimmers using Bluetooth technology can be concealed behind name plates and other nondescript areas of a register, gas pump or ATM, as these FBI images show. (FBI)


"Thousands of criminals suspected to be tied to organized Romanian crime have been identified to be in the United States, with a large portion of them entering the United States illegally, mainly through the southern border," Kimberly Edds, the director of public affairs for Spitzer's office, told Fox News Digital. "A smaller portion of this population is entering as asylum seekers."

Thieves tools and skimming devices on a table

The thieves' tools and partially assembled skimming devices are shown. (FBI)


A group of Southern California counties, including Orange, Riverside, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, has seen about 15% of the Romanian mob's activity within the US., she said.

In addition to sending stolen money back to Romania to fund luxe lifestyles and European sports cars, the crooks are also trading in food stamps for baby formula and energy drinks, which are then resold in Mexico in an alliance with local cartels.

A wall of stolen baby formula cans stacked up in a row.

A wall of baby formula that prosecutors say Romanian mobsters bought with food stamps and planned to sell in Mexico in cooperation with cartels there is seen. (Orange County DA)

Many of them even flaunt their ill-gotten gains on TikTok, including a 14-year-old suspect who police captured driving a $250,000 sports car and wearing a Rolex.

One of the men implicated in the plot was already on Romania's most wanted list — Florin Duduianu.


The 39-year-old was convicted in January after police watched him make multiple withdrawals using different cards from the same ATM in Placentia, about 30 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. They caught him with four Visa gift cards that had been reprogrammed into clones of four different victims' debit cards.

Cloend debit cards with numbers and dollar amounts written on back

The FBI recovered these cloned debit cards with the victims' PIN numbers and cash totals written on them. (FBI)

Duduianu is expected to get 30 years in federal prison at his sentencing later this week, according to the Justice Department.

In December, the FBI announced it was partnering with Romanian police to raid dozens of locations in the European country connected to the California skimming thefts.

The joint operation resulted in 48 arrests and the recovery of more than $1 million and 11 luxury vehicles.

Aerial panoramic view of Cancun city beaches on sunny day

Aerial panoramic view of Cancun's hotel zone and Playa Caracol and Kukulcan Road along the Riviera Maya in Mexico's Quintana Roo region on the Yucatan Peninsula. (iStock)


Many of the suspects arrested in Romania also had ties to Mexico's Riviera Maya gang, which itself is blamed for millions of dollars in skimming thefts in tourist hot spots that are popular with Americans, including Tulum and Cancun in Quintana Roo.

The gang's leader, Florian Tudor, is awaiting trial on fraud charges in Mexico and is wanted for attempted murder in Romania, as well.

Fox News' Elyse Perry contributed to this report.