Couple from Canada at center of fraud investigation in Georgia

Bond denied for Tanya Petmezova, Peter Nikoltchovski as more charges pending

By Erik Avanier - Reporter

ST. MARYS, Ga. - A couple from Ontario, Canada, was ordered held without bond at the Camden County jail on suspicion of committing credit card fraud at ATMs. 

Authorities have identified the suspects as Tanya Dimitrova Petmezova, 53, and Peter Ivanov Nikoltchovski, 59, both of Toronto. 

According to an arrest report obtained Wednesday by News4Jax, the investigation against both suspects began late Saturday night when St. Marys police received a complaint about fraudulent activity at the Georgia Visitor’s Center in St. Marys. The complaint came from Jason Cyphert, who is the owner of Alpine Creek Enterprise in Atlanta. According to the arrest report, Alpine Creek Enterprise owns and maintains ATMs at several Georgia welcome centers and rest areas throughout the state. 

The owner told police that on May 11, fraudulent activity was first noticed at an ATM in Port Wentworth, Georgia, which is located within the metropolitan area of Savannah. The owner told police that after that incident, he briefed his employees on suspicious activity to look out for. 

Fast-forward to Saturday, when a desk clerk at the Georgia Welcome Center in St. Marys said she observed Petmezova and Nikoltchovski individually make numerous trips to an ATM and attempted numerous transactions during each visit, according to the arrest report. The clerk reported seeing the couple use one type of ATM card for every transaction and that they were using information from a sheet of paper to complete the transactions. According to the report, this alleged activity lasted for an hour at the same ATM. 

The report states the clerk reported the suspicious activity to the company owner, who ran a transaction history on the machine and the findings turned up 45 transactions from 21 different accounts. The clerk who reported the suspicious activity took pictures and videos of the couple while they were at the ATM. 

According to the report, before the couple left the welcome center, they walked over to the clerk and asked whether there was a Red Roof Inn Hotel nearby. Before the couple left, the clerk took pictures of their Lexus SUV and the Canadian license plates on the vehicle. 

“I’m incredibly relieved and thankful to the staff at the welcome center that was able to act so quickly," Cyphert said.

The report states that Kingsland police officers located the SUV in the parking lot of the Red Roof Inn on Kings Avenue. A hotel clerk at the front desk confirmed a couple from Canada had checked into the hotel with their dog, and the two suspects were located in room 111, where they were taken into custody. 

Police said a search of the room turned up numerous Marshalls gift cards with handwritten names and numbers on the back. The report states that Nikoltchovski admitted to officers that he fraudulently obtained money through ATMs and that he received the cards from a man named George in Canada. He also told investigators that he drove from Ontario to use the cards and that Petmezova was not involved, even though cards were also found in her purse, according to the report. 

The couple were hauled off to jail and their dog was taken into custody by Camden County Animal Control. 

According to the report, ATM data obtained by investigators found:

  • There were 23 approved transactions that totaled $3,340. 
  • An incorrect pin was entered five out of 45 attempts.
  • 17 of the 45 attempts were declined because the account was flagged for fraudulent activity or exceeding the daily withdrawal limit. 

When officers searched the couple’s SUV, they said, they found 51 black gift cards with sticky notes on the back side with numbers on top and letters below. 

According to investigators, a total of 56 black cards and $3,700 in U.S. currency was confiscated as evidence. 

The two suspects are charged with fraud by deception.

The lead detective in the case told News4Jax they are expecting more charges against the couple and that there are other jurisdictions throughout the state of Georgia that are also looking into the couple. The FBI has not gotten involved at this point and it's unclear whether it will, but the lead detectives said they will be reaching out to authorities in Canada.

Investigators also told News4Jax that more charges against the suspects are pending because authorities in Savannah are also now investigating the couple as suspects after an ATM at a welcome center in Port Wentworth near Savannah was targeted last month and $10,000 was stolen from that machine.

It's also unclear whether the couple from Canada could possibly be linked to a Romanian skimming ring that authorities said targeted hundreds of North Florida and South Georgia residents.

Travelers who use ATMs at welcome centers were shocked to learn of the couple's arrest and talked about how easy it is to become a victim. 

“I worry about pulling into gas stations or ATMs. I check to make sure they don’t have those devices on them that scan credit card numbers," said Ric Roy, a Colorado resident.

Judi Lunderg, a Naples resident, said, "It’s almost more of the norm now than the exception. It truly is, at least with the customers I talk to on a daily basis."

The owner of the ATM allegedly used by the couple said he’s already been in contact with multiple victims. 

“Even if they are reimbursed by the banks or covered in some way through fraudulent protections out there, it’s still (an) extreme hassle on many levels," said Cyphert, who is also working with law enforcement to find out how deep this operation was running. 

Cyphert added that he has pulled all of his ATM machines from Georgia Welcome Centers and rest areas so that he can make sure the machines have not been compromised. He said he has also informed the welcome desk clerk and other welcome center employees around the state about what to look for when it comes to suspicious activity at his ATMs.

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