Hundreds who bought gas with debit cards in O.C. find accounts siphoned

Times Staff Writer

What happens in Costa Mesa can end up in Vegas, some unhappy victims of debit card fraud have learned, authorities said Friday.

More than 440 people who used debit cards to pay for gasoline at two Costa Mesa service stations have reported funds stolen from their accounts in Sin City, said Sgt. Martin Carver, a spokesman for the Costa Mesa Police Department.

Debit card information and personal identification numbers captured the week of Sept. 29 to Oct. 8 were used to create fake cards to withdraw cash from ATMs at casinos in Las Vegas, Carver said.

To date, he said, more than $100,000 has been reported stolen. Investigating the thefts are the Secret Service, which enters cases involving large credit card fraud, and the Las Vegas and Costa Mesa police departments.


How the thieves captured the information is unknown, Carver said. Sophisticated thieves sometimes rely on an electronic device that copies information from a card’s magnetic strip while surveillance video gets the PIN from the unsuspecting victim, Carver said.

“We don’t know how it was done,” he said, “but we started getting people coming in to file reports when their bank statements showed the card was used to withdraw cash in Las Vegas.”

Carver said the thieves may have added devices to the ATMs during the night when the stations were closed. Police did not identify the stations or their locations.

Victims began calling police Oct. 31. At least 16 have walked into the Costa Mesa police station to file reports, and the rest reported the losses to eight banks.


The number of victims was expected to increase, Carver said.

The theft was not unprecedented, authorities said: This summer eight people were arrested in an elaborate scheme to steal more than $1 million by skimming account information from the debit cards of dozens of customers at three Southern California restaurants.

In that case, restaurant employees used special devices to steal account information from patrons’ Wells Fargo and Washington Mutual debit cards, authorities said. The employees reportedly passed the information to two alleged ringleaders in exchange for about $200 per card skimmed.

The ringleaders then re-stripped their own cards with the stolen information, requested new PINs and accessed the patrons’ accounts, authorities said.