Police: Skimmers part of a large ring

LAWRENCEVILLE - Much like drug runners in a Mexican cartel, three Romanian men arrested for stealing banking information in Gwinnett are part of a larger, Eastern European criminal network scamming bank patrons from the eastern seaboard to Los Angeles, an official said Wednesday.

Police hope the arrests made in Gwinnett last month will help stem the tide of widespread, alleged theft.

"This is complicated," said Lawrenceville Detective S. Gaines, who is leading an investigation into thefts dating back to at least September 2007. "But we're getting somewhere, hopefully."

The trio of suspects apprehended by Gaines - after he staked out a Duluth bank July 28 and observed them in action through binoculars - could be pawns in a larger game overseen by a national conglomerate, he said.

On Wednesday, Gwinnett Magistrate Judge Gene Cantrell bound charges of identity fraud and criminal possession of forgery devices against the suspects to Superior Court. All three remain in jail on $50,000 bond, which one defense attorney said is tantamount to denying them bond.

The alleged thieves stole ATM information used to drain bank accounts from customers at Washington Mutual branches across metro Atlanta, police said. Gaines said the suspects used a stealthy, high-tech device called a "skimmer" and tiny, hidden cameras to bilk banking information from customers.

Why only Washington Mutual banks? Gaines said thieves target WaMu specifically because its ATM machines are enclosed by a glass vestibule. Bank customers must swipe cards through a card-reader to gain access to the ATMs.

The skimmer, or trap, is a cover that resembles a card swipe. The thieves discreetly fasten the devices over the regular card swipes, police said. The device then captures encrypted information from bank customers' cards as they swipe cards and enter the enclosure, police said.

The thieves also allegedly planted miniature cameras near the ATM that recorded customers typing in PIN numbers. Using the card numbers, the suspects then made counterfeit bank cards, which they used at different ATMs with the PIN numbers to deplete customers' funds, Gaines said.

Gaines said skimming devices have been used at 35 Washington Mutual branches across metro Atlanta in 2008 alone.

A detective with the Snellville Police Department testified that bank surveillance captured two of the three suspects operating at a WaMu branch at Ga. Highway 124 and Barnes Road on July 16. They've been charged with additional counts.

Romanian translators sat beside the suspects - Nicolae Drasovian, 36, Marius Csapay, 44, both of Norcross, and Romulus Bacian, 38, of Duluth - as they watched the lengthy hearing. Only Drasovian is a legal U.S. citizen, having lived here 12 years while working construction, his attorney said.

All three are represented by separate attorneys, who argued that police have not yet been able to prove the skimming devices actually record data.

"Here, what we have, is a piece of plastic," said Csapay's attorney, Daniel Ashley. "There's no evidence that (Gaines) doesn't just have a blank box."

That's because Lawrenceville police have yet to find a computer forensics specialist available to test the equipment, the detective testified.

Gaines said more arrests could follow as the investigation continues. He's recovered four skimmers, from banks in Gwinnett and DeKalb, he said.

The thefts have resulted in financial losses and penalties with lenders for affected customers, he said.