NORFOLK, Va. (AP) —
The Bulgarian man stuck a device to the front of a Virginia Beach ATM, federal investigators said. He pointed a nearby camera at its keypad and walked away.
From there, it was just a matter of time before he and his compatriots back in Eastern Europe could start liquidating the accounts of unsuspecting bank customers from the safety of their own homes.
At least, that is, if the device had stayed stuck.
Milen Marinov, 39, was sentenced last Monday to six years and three months in federal prison for aggravated identity theft and unauthorized use of an access device. He pleaded guilty Sept. 25.
“There isn’t really any question this is a serious offense,” U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar said of identity theft. “It is something that haunts people, sometimes for the rest of their lives.”
According to court documents, Marinov used so-called “skimmers” on five ATMs in 2011 in Virginia Beach and Henrico County to steal card information from 262 people. The scheme netted more than $130,000 before a skimmer fell off a Beach ATM, alerting authorities to what was happening. The banks reimbursed their customers.
A skimmer is an electronic device that can be installed surreptitiously over an ATM’s card reader, electronically recording a customer’s debit card information, prosecutors said. A small camera is usually placed nearby to record people entering their passwords, but sometimes con artists use special keypad overlays.
The information is downloaded from the device to a computer and then re-encoded onto a blank card. The new card can be used to withdraw money from the victims’ bank accounts.
Skimmers are neither new nor hard to find. Bank security experts believe the devices have been commercially available on the Internet for about eight years.
“Just Google ‘skimmer’ and you will find 10 websites that sell this stuff,” said Jerry Scheuer, resident agent in charge of the Norfolk office of the Secret Service, the primary agency that investigates skimmers.
A new skimmer costs between $2,000 and $10,000, said Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management for the American Bankers Association.
Catching those behind the skimmers is not easy, though. The Secret Service does not track such things, but bank officials acknowledge they don’t see many arrests.
“There is a certain level of anonymity with this crime,” Johnson said. “It is probably why some people do this.”
Johnson hopes to launch an alert system in the next year that would capture more information about skimmer incidents, so the association can notify member banks when devices are found in their areas. The association has a similar system to keep members informed about bank robberies.
Johnson explained that the industry is eager to help law enforcement catch skimmers. He said a bank robber usually makes off with only $3,000 to $4,000 per robbery, while a con artist with a skimmer can steal more than $30,000 in a day.
“Obviously, from the standpoint of the bank, that is significant,” he said.
The Secret Service linked Marinov to the local skimming incidents after he was convicted in 2012 of a similar crime in Ohio and sentenced to 14 months in federal prison.
Tim Quick, Marinov’s attorney, said a sample of Marinov’s DNA was entered into a federal database following his Ohio conviction. It matched a sample found on a skimmer Oct. 24, 2011, outside a SunTrust Bank on Lynnhaven Parkway.
“A customer came along and it fell off,” Quick said. “That’s it. That’s how he was discovered.”
It wasn’t surprising when investigators determined that the local skimmers were installed by a Bulgarian national who was living in the country illegally.
Henrico County Police Detective Christopher Maher, who investigated one of the Virginia skimmers, said he called the Secret Service as soon as he saw the surveillance footage from his case. White men in European-style clothing caught on camera installing a skimmer are usually from Eastern Europe or Russia, he said.
“There is apparently a Bulgarian skimming university out there somewhere where these criminals matriculate from,” Johnson added.
Marinov did not address the court last Monday, but Quick stressed his client was not the fraud scheme’s mastermind.
He said Marinov’s son, who still lives in Bulgaria, is autistic and in need of significant medical care. Marinov borrowed money from an “unscrupulous individual” in Bulgaria to pay for it, Quick said.
In time, Marinov agreed to travel to the United States and enter into a life of crime to pay off the debt, Quick explained.
“These people in Bulgaria don’t mess around,” Quick said.
Marinov is the only person so far to be arrested in connection with this scheme.
Scott Daugherty writes for The Virginian-Pilot.