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One month ago today, three men walked into a Wal-Mart in Post Falls and attempted to buy in-store gift cards using a series of credit cards. Store managers grew suspicious and called police.
That set off an investigation by local and federal authorities of a sophisticated scheme to steal credit card numbers from gas station customers, siphon funds from those accounts and launder the money through the purchase of retail gift cards.
The Florida-based suspects fled, and the Post Falls Police Department and the U.S. Secret Service are still identifying victims across the Inland Northwest. Potentially hundreds of account numbers were stolen from residents in the Spokane, Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene areas.
“A lot of people were compromised. We still don’t know the full scope of this,” Post Falls police Detective Neil Uhrig said.
The thieves broke into a pair of gas pumps at an Exxon station near Interstate 90 and installed skimming devices that collect customers’ credit card and debit card numbers.
This method has been used for years around the U.S. using inexpensive equipment easily purchased online, investigators say. Skimming crews also have been discovered this fall in Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and other states. Many of the suspects are from Florida.
Post Falls police questioned two of the men at the Wal-Mart on Mullan Avenue. They had Florida drivers’ licenses and said they were Cuban immigrants here on vacation.
“As we figured out what they were doing, we got warrants for those two males,” Uhrig said. “And we are under the impression they fled back to Florida.”
The suspects were in a self-checkout stand at the store, “running card after card after card,” he said.
Police confiscated 99 inactivated Visa gift cards the men had on them, as well as 30 more cards that had been activated.
“We didn’t have a clue what we had going on,” Uhrig said. “We just had them with a ton of these cards.”
A forensic investigation revealed the 30 activated gift cards had been reprogrammed with stolen credit card numbers. Investigators began working with banks and credit unions in the region to identify the victims and try to pinpoint when and where their cards had been compromised.
Soon a common point of use emerged: the Jifi Stop Exxon at Spokane Street and Seventh Avenue. Uhrig went to the station and opened the front panels on the pumps. He found the small skimmers wired to card readers on two pumps.
“Basically day and night it’s saving card numbers as you’re getting gas,” he said.
“You can only imagine, if that’s been on there for just a month, how many people were getting gas at the pump in a month: hundreds.”
The Jifi Stop scoured security footage and found video from early October showing the thieves breaking into a pump one night. One man went inside the store to make a purchase, possibly to distract the clerk, as the other unlocked the pump door. They were in and out in under two minutes, Uhrig said.
“They’re very good at what they do. It’s hard to see what they’re really doing,” he said.