Three Bothell detectives and a citizen were honored Thursday for helping crack an international skimming ring based in Kirkland that stole money from ATMs across the Eastside and compromised more than $1 million in bank accounts.
Jenny Durkan, U.S. attorney for Western Washington, praised the Bothell resident, identified only as “Cherie,” for calling police after seeing two men withdrawing large sums with several bank cards at a shopping center in the Canyon Park area. Fortuitously, the three Bothell detectives were nearby on a lunch break and also spotted suspicious activity. The two men turned out to be Romanian nationals in the United States illegally.
“They managed to evade the Swedish authorities, German authorities, then they went to Canada and evaded authorities there,” Durkan said during the presentation at the Bothell Police Department. “Then they came to Bothell.”
Durkan said Cherie called 9-1-1 after going to an ATM and finding a man there using "card after card" to withdraw cash. She then went to another ATM and found another man doing the same.
The two men were arrested by responding Bothell officers, one in a car and the other leaving the scene on foot, and were then connected to leaders of the ring. Last September, a Secret Service task force executed a search warrant on the Kirkland home that served as a hub for the ring and arrested Ismail Sali and Eugen Tirca.
They also found documents tying Sali to other defendants arrested earlier, and throughout the probe seized forms for making card skimmers, fake ATM faceplates and devices used to mount pinhole cameras to read card numbers as they were inserted into ATMs.
“This story shows you how important it is for citizens to call police” when “you see something that is not quite right,” Durkan said. “Our office was able to bust a ring that compromised $1 million in accounts in the Northwest.”
The three Bothell detectives honored with Cherie are Michael Stone, Jon Caban (now an officer) and Ryan Odegaard, who was not able to attend the presentation. All received framed certificates of appreciation from Durkan. All of those present declined to talk about the case.
Sali pleaded guilty last month and, according to his plea agreement, will pay restitution of $357,256. A prison sentence of between six and eight years will be recommended. In all, six people were arrested as part of the ring.
Dozens of ATMs were hit in the operation, including machines in Kirkland, Redmond, Bellevue, Woodinville and Sumner, and a Shell service station ATM in Kirkland.
Durkan, a victim of another skimming operation herself last year, urged the public to take steps to avoid becoming victims (see below). “It is horrible to wake up and learn your bank account has been ransacked,” she said. “It causes real harm to real people.”
She also urged the public not to hesitate to call police. “If you, like Cherie, see something that’s not quite right, please report it.”
For an earlier Kirkland Patch story about the arrest of Sali and Tirca, click here. For a Patch story last month about Sali pleading guilty, click here.
Tirca also pleaded guilty and both he and Sali await sentencing. Durkan said that after serving their sentences, “since these particular people were here illegally, they will then be sent out of the country.”
The Secret Service and U.S. Attorney's Office offers the following tips on avoiding skimming machines:
- If the access door to a lobby ATM is broken, don’t use the ATM; go somewhere else.
- If there is more than one ATM, and a sign has been placed on one of the units saying it is out of service, go somewhere else. The sign could be an attempt to direct traffic to the machine where skimming equipment is installed.
- Check the machine before putting your card in—is the card slot securely in the machine? Has anything been installed around the edges of the machine that could conceal a camera? Is any glue or sticky substance around the keypad or card slot?
- Always attempt to cover your hand when you enter your PIN so that if there is a camera, the numbers cannot be captured.
- Watch your account activity and report any unauthorized credit or debit charges immediately.