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4 Busted in LIRR Skimming Scam
Four Romanian nationals, including a married couple, were arrested this week in an alleged Long Island Rail Road ticket machine skimming scheme that resulted in thousands of debit and credit card information thefts and tens of thousands of dollars in losses from dozens of bank accounts, authorities said Friday.
Metropolitan Transit Authority Police arrested the husband and wife duo, 38-year-old Valer Zaharia and 27-year-old Teodora Zaharia, at the LIRR’s Sea Cliff station Monday night. Two others, 45-year-old Niculae Petre and 37-year-old Dorin Husa, were arrested in Elmhurst, Queens on Tuesday.
The investigation, which began two weeks ago after a LIRR customer found a plastic device on a ticket vending machine in Bayside and alerted workers there, is still continuing as authorities pour through thousands of account numbers to “see to what extent they were used to steal money from people’s accounts and financial institutions,” Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said.
“Ticket vending machines are a source of convenience for thousands of people who take the railroad every single day,” Rice added. “Unfortunately, those machines have become a source of convenience for a crew of thieves who have used modern computer technology to steal the card information for thousands of customers.”
MTA police’s investigation began Oct. 16 when the device was discovered in Bayside, and then alerted customers to the scam. Police then inspected all 278 LIRR ticket vending machines and found nine other skimming devices at five LIRR stations—Bayside, Great Neck, Sea Cliff, Merillon Avenue and Greenvale, MTA police chief Michael Coan said.
The skimming devices and pinhole cameras, which are hidden inside black metal strips molded to look like part of the machine and mounted above the keypad where PIN (personal identification number) numbers are entered, were removed and rendered inoperable before police reinstalled them onto the machines, which were put under 24-hour surveillance.
Valer and Teodora Zaharia—unaware of police surveillance—were allegedly observed retrieving two skimmer devices and two hidden cameras from the machines at the Sea Cliff station Monday night. Police had been watching that location for more than 72 hours, authorities said.
“This was good old fashioned police work,” said Nassau County police Det. Sgt. Richard Harasym, commander of the Crimes Against Property Squad.
Police obtained a search warrant for an apartment in Elmhurst and arrested Petre and Husa, both believed to be technicians and managers of the alleged scam, authorities said.
The apartment “was set up as a virtual factory to manufacture skimming, recording device and produce fraudulent credit and debit cars,” Coan said. The search turned up thousands of stolen debit and credit card numbers, hundreds of gift cards, cameras, skimming devices, plastic molds, memory cards, flash drives, computers, cash and credit cards, authorities said. Two additional flash drives storing account numbers were also found in a toilet.
Rice said one bank has reported thousands of dollars of losses on more than 50 accounts. Investigators will continue to analyze the other account numbers and work with banks affected by the scam. Rice declined to identify the banks that have suffered losses.
LIRR President Helena Williams said 76 percent of vending machine ticket sales are debit and credit card transactions. She reminded customers to be vigilant by covering the keypad if they use debit cards and to instead use credit cards and cash to prevent scammers from gaining direct access to bank accounts.
“This isn’t anything new,” Rice said. “This is all it takes,” she added while waving a tiny camera used the alleged scam.
All 556 Metro-North and LIRR ticket machines have been inspected since the investigation started, Coan said.
Valer and Teodora were arraigned Tuesday on charges of identity theft, criminal possession of forgery devices, and unlawful possession of a skimming device. Both were held without bail.
Petre and Husa were arraigned Wednesday on charges of criminal possession of a forged instrument, criminal possession of forgery devices and unlawful possession of personal identification information. Petre is beind held on $50,000 bond and Husa, $35,000.
All four face up to seven years in prison, if convicted. They also all face deportation.