DULUTH -- Duluth police are spearheading an investigation into a theft ring that's bilked thousands from widespread victims by way of prepaid debit cards issued at Walmart, officials said Wednesday.
Four suspects, including a Gwinnett man, have been jailed in connection with the scam. Duluth police say the arrests are the first of many.
Investigators believe the scam may account for upwards of $250,000 surreptitiously stolen from victims and deposited in prepaid card accounts. Victims identified thus far are spread from New York, to Texas to Washington state, police said.
"None of the victims at this time appear to be local, but this is ongoing criminal activity," said Duluth police spokesman Maj. Don Woodruff.
The modus operandi, in a nutshell, goes like this:
Suspects buy large amounts of Walmart Green Dot cards -- which bear the Visa logo but carry no credit or charge privileges -- at retailers and register for permanent cards embossed with a cardholder's name. The process for the permanent cards to be generated and mailed out takes a week to 10 days, police said.
In the meantime, thieves compromise victims' bank accounts and load money onto the temporary cards. Then they travel to various Walmart stores and withdraw money from the temporary accounts.
Most accounts police have come across were loaded with about $5,000, officials said. Duluth police have recovered 34 cards, about $26,000 and another $2,000 in money orders but suspect the haul is the tip of the fraudulent iceberg.
Investigators wouldn't say exactly how the funds are obtained, as the case is ongoing, "and we certainly don't wish to educate anyone on how to commit a crime," Woodruff said.
Woodruff warned people to be wary of permanent Green Dot cards they may receive in the mail without having opened an account. Officials advise calling local police if suspicions arise.
This month, authorities arrested four people -- Ramon McCullough, 27, of Tampa; Kayikunmi Olabanji, 25, of Grayson; Kenneth Omorgie, 44, of Austell, and Christian Ubhimhinye, 33, of Douglasville -- on multiple counts of credit card theft and fraud.
Duluth police Capt. M.A. Hunter said warrants for nine additional suspects were being obtained by investigators on Wednesday. Police are building cases against others.
"We've been in contact with numerous agencies in the metro area regarding these crimes ... and are aware of instances in Florida and Texas as well," Hunter said in a release.
Green Dot, based in California, is a leading provider of the prepaid debit cards offered at tens of thousands of retailers across the United States, the company's website states.
The main appeal of the cards is that they limit spending to whatever a purchaser has deposited on them beforehand.
Recent scams involving prepaid cards haven't been limited to Walmart retailers.
In August, Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department officials issued a warning about a scam involving prepaid cards and bond monies for inmates.
Scammers purporting themselves as Sheriff's Department employees were calling inmates' families and requesting they put potential bond money on "PayPal Green Dot Money Pak cards," officials said.
The callers went on to say that once money was submitted to the cards, the inmates would be released from jail, which was a falsity, officials said.