Sheriff: Intricate bank skimmer heist compromised 291 bank cards

Putnam County says Romanian suspects targeted 10 banks in 5 counties

By Lena Pringle - Reporter/Anchor, Steve Patrick - News4Jax digital managing editor

PALATKA, Fla. - Members of the U.S. Secret Service, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Clay County Sheriff's Office gathered Monday to describe a card-skimming scheme that Sheriff Gator DeLoach said is the most technologically advanced he has ever seen.

"This is actually a first for me," DeLoach said. "Call it emergent technology. ... It’s the first that I’ve seen in our region and our area."

A two-month investigation found a woman and her nephew from Romania appeared to be behind a scam placing skimmers on at least 10 bank ATMs. Investigators said 291 cards were compromised and more than $100,000 was withdrawn with fraudulent bank cards made with information collected by the skimmers.

According to court records, the pair were seen on surveillance video installing skimmers at bank ATMs in Jacksonville, Putnam County, Clay County, Alachua County, Taylor County and Georgia. The two accused of running the operation wore different colored wigs and used gloves or bandages on their fingers to keep from leaving prints as they tampered with the teller machines.

The suspects, Elena Matei, 35, and Plopsor Matei, 18, who lived in Mandarin, were arrested last week by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. News4Jax has learned the pair were a Romanian-born woman and her nephew. 

The pair remain in jail on numerous fraud and other charges, held on $340,000 and $400,000 bond.

Authorities said they also have surveillance video of the pair coming and going from a Sunbeam Road storage facility that was rented under a fake name.

The Sheriff's Office said a search of their apartment and the storage unit turned up multiple skimming tools, magnetic stripe cards, clothing and wigs.

The skimming operation was so large that investigators do not know if there are more fraudulent card readers out there or if there are more suspects in the area or across the world.

The criminals' scheme was so intricate they even matched the paint color on the skimmer to that of the ATMs.

"You can see it matches it almost perfectly," said DeLoach said.

Putnam County Sheriff's Office photo

Evidence collected during the investigation of technologically advanced skimmers found on 10 bank ATMs.

There were some clues that the ATM had been tampered with, but you might not notice unless you were familiar with the machine.

“If you’ve seen an ATM that you’ve used regularly and you know that there’s a light there, then there is now a panel," DeLoach said.

These skimmers are inserted deep into the machine, so the usual advice of trying to see if the card reader seems loose may not be enough. 

“Look for glue or adhesive residue around the card reader itself and look for anything that appears out of place," DeLoach said.

Plopsor Matei had only been in this country for five months. Investigators are still trying to learn how long his aunt had lived in the Jacksonville area.

Skimmers in this investigation were found at:

  • Navy Federal Credit Union 11100 San Jose Blvd., Jacksonville
  • Capital City Bank 4120 Crill Ave., Palatka
  • Capital City Bank 148 U.S. 17 South, East Palatka
  • Capital City Bank 500 Green Way, Keystone Heights 
  • SunTrust Bank 770 Lane Ave., Jacksonville
  • Capital City Bank 24202 West Newberry Road, Newberry
  • First Atlantic Bank 5665 Normandy Blvd., Jacksonville
  • Ameris Bank 1555 Kingsley Ave., Orange Park
  • TIAA Bank 104 New Berlin Road, Jacksonville
  • Capital City Bank 115 West Green St., Perry, Georgia
     

Protect yourself from an ATM Skimmer

According to Alive Credit Union, skimmers are usually composed of two sections. The first attaches to the card slot, usually covering it completely. The second is a camera, which can be very close to the card slot or some distance away, at the top of the ATM. The card reader records the electronic data from your ATM card, which the thief can use to make an exact copy of it. The camera is there to record your PIN.

The following tips from Alive Credit Union could help to save you from an ATM skimmer:

  • Trust your instincts: If anything looks out of place on an ATM, don't use it. If you see a wire poking out, or the plastic on the card reader doesn't quite match, or there appears to be some unusual wear and tear around the card slot, walk away.
  • Guard your PIN carefully: As most skimmers require two pieces of information from you, the PIN is something you can at least stop them from getting. You may seem a little paranoid to anyone waiting in line behind you, but who cares? Just cover your actions by cupping one hand over the numbers as your other hand enters them. It's rudimentary but it works.
  • Take advantage of the debit card "cash back" feature: A grocery or convenience store will give you cash back if you pay for your purchase with a debit card. Simply hit the amount of cash you need. It's free, and it's safer.
  • Become a creature of habit and use the same ATM each time: This won't protect you from encountering a skimmer, but you're much more likely to notice something fishy if you are familiar with the machine.
  • Look for ATMs with video surveillance: These machines have extra security and this additional level of protection deters thieves from installing the skimming devices.
  • Finally, if you do suspect something, let the local branch, gas station, or store know It may be a false alarm, but you could prevent someone who isn't as vigilant as you are from being ripped off.

Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.