Man sentenced in ATM skimming conspiracy that affected Harford, region

Crime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemTheftCredit and DebtBanking

A Bulgarian citizen, who was involved in an international conspiracy to skim debit and credit card information from bank and other ATMs, including at least one in Bel Air early last year, was sentenced to 32 months in federal prison by a judge in Baltimore Federal District Court Friday.

In addition to receiving a prison term, Hristo Georgive Kostov, 29, who had been living in Howard County, was also sentenced to two years of supervised release by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake. Blake also entered an order requiring Kostov to pay restitution of $47,495, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a news release.

According to prosecutors, Kostov was part of a conspiracy involving other Bulgarian nationals in the U.S. and abroad that used skimming devices at ATMs to steal consumer information at several locations in the Baltimore area, including Harford County.

Reports of credit card misuse to Harford police agencies and discoveries of skimming devices at several local banks increased around the same time that prosecutors say the Bulgarian conspiracy was operating around the Baltimore region.

International conspiracy

Kostov was charged with conspiracy to commit access device fraud and aggravated identity theft, in connection with a scheme to use small cameras and ATM skimming devices to obtain debit and credit card account numbers and personal identification numbers.

According to Kostov's plea agreement and other court documents, from at least September 2009 through February 2011, Kostov was part of a conspiracy that affixed small ATM skimmers imported from Bulgaria and miniature cameras to bank ATMs throughout Maryland to capture account information from each card inserted into the ATM machine and the PIN numbers as bank customers entered them.

Once the ATM skimming device was removed from the ATM, it would be plugged into a computer and the captured information would be sent to additional co-conspirators in Bulgaria, through the use of constantly changing e-mail addresses.

The Bulgarian co-conspirators e-mailed the stolen account information back in a format in which Kostov and his co-conspirators could then encode the magnetic strips of plastic cards, such as gift cards, with the compromised account information, creating counterfeit debit and credit cards.

The conspirators then used the counterfeit cards and the corresponding stolen PINs to make unauthorized withdrawals directly from the victims' bank accounts.

On Jan. 8, 2011 and again on Jan. 15, 2011, another co-conspirator, Ivo Svetozarov Damyanov, placed a skimmer on an ATM at Bank of America at 201 S. Main St. in Bel Air. From Jan. 25-26, 2011, Kostov and other conspirators withdrew a total of $13,160 from 19 victims' accounts, using the account information captured during the Jan. 8 and Jan. 15 skims, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office's news release.

Damyanov sentenced last week

On March 16, Damyanov, 32, another Bulgarian citizen living in Howard County, was sentenced to 75 months in federal prison and ordered to pay restitution of $442,169.50, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Damyanov pleaded guilty last September to conspiracy to commit access device fraud, access device fraud and aggravated identity theft.

Following Damyanov's sentencing last week, prosecutors described how he and Kostov operated.

According to prosecutors, on Oct. 9, 2010, Damyanov placed an ATM skimmer on an ATM in Owings Mills, removing the skimmer a few hours later. On Oct. 20 and 21, 2010, Damyanov and others made fraudulent withdrawals from the accounts of more than 40 victims using the skimmed account information.

In addition, some of the gift cards encoded with account information skimmed on Jan. 22, 2011, were found in a garage shared by Damyanov and Kostov, along with tools and double-sided tape used to attach the skimming devices.

"Cheat sheets" were also found, which listed the last few digits of the gift card the conspirators were using and the corresponding stolen PIN numbers of the compromised accounts. A similar cheat sheet was found in Damyanov's car.

Damyanov and Kostov and other co-conspirators used the cheat sheets along with the altered gift cards to make withdrawals from the victims' accounts, prosecutors said.

There were at least 526 victims in the Owings Mills case, with a total loss of more than $400,000, prosecutors said.

A third co-defendant in the conspiracy, Hristo Dimitrov Kostov, is a fugitive.

In a related case, Stoycho Lazarov, another Bulgarian citizen, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit access device fraud and aggravated identity theft based on his role in the ATM skimming. He is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on Aug. 10, 2012 at 9:15 a.m.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein thanked the U.S. Secret Service for its work in the investigation. Rosenstein praised Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kristi N. O'Malley and Tamera L. Fine, who prosecuted the Kostov and Damyanov cases.

Other Harford skimming

In 2009 and early 2010, at least three incidents of suspected ATM skimming were reported to police in Harford County, according to past news stories reported by The Aegis and http://www.exploreharford.com.

In all three instances, police said they suspected the skimming activities were connected to more widespread activity and were trying to determine if the local incidents were related. None of the three cases was ever reported closed, nor were there ever any charges filed or arrests announced.

In September 2009, Bel Air police were alerted to suspected skimming equipment installed on an ATM at the Bank of America Branch in the 200 block of S. Main St. A Bel Air Police Department spokesperson said at the time that there were "several victims," and the Harford County Sheriff's Office said there were a number of reports filed for credit card misuse around the same time.

In February 2010, the sheriff's office investigated after a credit/debit card reading device was found attached to an ATM at a Bank of America branch in the 3400 block of Emmorton Road in Abingdon, At the time, the sheriff's office said between $10,000 and $15,000 was stolen from at least 160 accounts.

In August 2010, a man reported finding what looked like a skimming device on an ATM at a Wachovia Bank branch in the 400 block of Constant Friendship Boulevard in Abingdon. Police said at the time they did not know if the device had been there long enough to be used to steal credit and debit card information.

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