June 16 – North Ridgeville

An observant employee’s assistance led to finding a suspect connected with the use of an ATM skimmer – a small, installed device that grabs information from the magnetic strip on a customer’s bank card – at the Charter One Bank on Center Ridge Road.

“It’s rare to find one of these,” Police Lt. Marti Garrow said last week of the

skimmer.

Although this was the first time such a device had been found in the city, he said, skimming is a growing problem nationwide. According to Garrow, an employee of the bank approached the walk-up ATM machine for a personal transaction May 30 when she noticed something was wrong.

“She was very astute and noticed the color was off, and that parts were loose,”  he said. “She knew something was not right so she contacted the bank security, who then contacted the police.”

Officer Jim Larkin responded to the call and found a car with Illinois license plates in a nearby parking lot. Inside the vehicle, Mihail Vasilev, of a Chicago address, was found in possession of criminal tools, including a laptop computer that was being used to collect the information from the ATM scanning device.

“(Larkin) asked him (Vasilev) some questions he didn’t have answers for,” Garrow said, adding Vasilev, an illegal alien from Bulgaria, was known to be working with three other men, who were not located.

Vasilev, who has been involved in similar crimes, is being held in the Lorain County Jail pending further action. Skimmers have been found in major cities throughout the United States on ATM machines from a variety of banks, resulting in the theft of millions of dollars. A media representative from Charter One did not return a call seeking comment.

“This is a large ring traveling around the country,” Garrow explained. “Their equipment is very professional. Most people would not be aware it was there.”

He said the United States Border Patrol is looking for Vasilev’s accomplices. If Vasilev is released on bond, he could then be picked up by the patrol.

Garrow said the typical skimmer consists of two parts: A device that reads the magnetic strip on a bank card, and a pinhole camera, which records a person entering his or her PIN number.

The skimmers can appear as a shell placed over the ATM card reader, or it may be a harder-to-detect strip fitted across the top of the machine near the light. The camera is installed near the scanner, sometimes on the side of a brochure holder. Information is then recorded on a computer and may be reloaded onto another card with a magnetic strip, on which information has been erased. Armed with the forged card and PIN number, the criminal then steals funds from the account.

These professional criminals can quickly install the skimmers, Garrow said, usually doing so during a quiet time of day. He added the device was placed at the Charter One branch that Sunday around 8:30 a.m.; the device was discovered at about 3:30 p.m. Customers who used the machine during that time frame were notified, and their bank cards canceled.

Hacking into bank accounts and the act of identity theft have been prevalent crimes for a number of years, and now, Garrow said, the offenders have targeted ATMs.

“It’s a constant battle between banks and the criminals,” he said.

It is not clear whether only walk-up machines have been affected, or if skimmers have also been found on drive-up ATMs, he said. He advised anyone using such machines to be familiar with their appearance and to be aware of anything that seems loose or different in color. Customers should use their hands to shield the PIN number when entering it. He also advised people to stay up to date on their account statuses.

“You can always go online to check your account whenever possible,” he said.

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