Amid Skimming Fraud Surge, Agencies Bust Romanian Man's Operation Targeting Low-Income Californians

Amid Skimming Fraud Surge, Agencies Bust Romanian Man's Operation Targeting Low-Income Californians
Cover Image Source: ATM Transactions | Photo by Alexandros Chatzidimos | Pexels

The Justice Department recently disclosed details about a Romanian man, who ran a scheme to pilfer bank account information from low-income individuals. Marius Oprea has been sentenced to six years in jail. The man, aged 38, covertly installed miniature devices, known as "skimming" devices, on ATMs in California. These devices, equipped with small card readers and cameras, surreptitiously captured data from debit cards, primarily targeting individuals enrolled in programs designed to aid the impoverished. 

Image Source: Photo by Liliana Drew | Pexels
Image Source: Photo by Liliana Drew | Pexels

Subsequently, the accused and his group utilized the stolen information to unlawfully access unemployment benefits intended for those in need. In recent months, federal prosecutors have intensified their efforts to apprehend skimmers operating across various jurisdictions, spanning states like Florida, Alabama, California, and Nevada. According to data analysis firm FICO, incidents of skimming fraud surged nationwide in 2023, with a staggering 96% increase in compromised debit cards reported.

Skimming instances have increased from 1,100 in 2022 to nearly 1,600 last year, according to FICO. Moreover, the financial ramifications of skimming are substantial, with FBI estimates indicating that financial institutions and individuals collectively lose over $1 billion annually due to skimming-related activities.

Image Source: Photo by RDNE Stock project | Pexels
Image Source: Photo by RDNE Stock project | Pexels

Recently, Oprea pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud in a federal court in California, exemplifying the sophisticated methods employed by criminals to extract sensitive bank information from unsuspecting victims at ATMs. Federal prosecutors note that many individuals involved in these crimes hail from foreign countries.

"Skimming activity is on the rise. It's highly profitable, and catching the perpetrators is challenging because they often enter the U.S. illegally and live using fake identities with counterfeit IDs," Andrew Brown, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case told USA Today

People use bank ATM
Image Source: People use bank ATMs next to a Bitcoin ATM at a shopping mall | Getty Images | Photo by Chris McGrath

Oprea, who is believed to have entered the country illegally, started his ATM skimming enterprise in 2023. His operations came to light on May 12, 2023, when federal officials executed a search at his residence and vehicle in Oxnard, California.

During the search, authorities uncovered a cache of incriminating evidence, including over 20 cloned ATM cards, a card reader, a counterfeit passport featuring Oprea's photo under an alias, and more than 100 cloned ATM card images stored on a cellphone. Federal agents discovered numerous ATM skimmers and pinhole cameras implicating Oprea in the scheme.

The skimming devices, smuggled from Vienna, Austria, were disguised as "audio equipment" and addressed to Oprea and his accomplice before being imported into the United States. These devices, concealed within speakers, were intercepted by European officials in parcels bearing similar descriptions.

Romanian law enforcement authorities provided crucial information to U.S. agents, alerting them to a suspected co-conspirator.

Image Source: Photo by Liliana Drew | Pexels
Image Source: Photo by Liliana Drew | Pexels

The investigation was led by the Vulnerable Communities Task Force, a specialized group dedicated to apprehending offenders who prey on communities with lower crime reporting rates. These vulnerable populations include the elderly, individuals reliant on public assistance, and those hesitant to seek aid from the government.

Through their concerted efforts, law enforcement aims to hold perpetrators accountable and safeguard the well-being of these communities.

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