A mother and her son were arraigned and held on $1 million bail in San Jose today on charges of using “skimming” devices to steal credit card information from scores of gas station pumps in the Bay Area, a prosecutor said. Petra Vaca, 53, of Ontario, and her son Luis Gomez, 33, of Yucaipa, where charged today with felony identity theft in Santa Clara County Superior Court and will be in court again on March 10, according to Deputy District Attorney Tom Flattery. Vaca’s daughter, Lupe Castelar, 35, of Fontana, was charged previously in the case in Superior Court in Morgan Hill and is set to return to court there on March 4, Flattery said.
The three defendants and three other people are being held in county jails on $1 million bail each, charged with being part of a criminal identity theft organization based in Southern California that involved two “skimming crews,” according to Flattery. The crews over a two-year period bought more than $500,000 worth of merchandise, mainly from purchases of Apple brand computers, using credit card information stolen directly from inside gas station pumps that use pay at the pump machines, Flattery said.
“We suspect this has been going on for years,” Flattery said. “We believe this was a prolific crew and we hope that this will take a bite out of the prolific gas pump skimmers in the area,” he said. The skimming crews allegedly used keys to open “less than 100” gas station pumps in San Jose, San Francisco, Los Altos, Fremont and Redwood City and then insert a skimming device to store credit and debit card information from gas customers, Flattery said. The conspirators would return to the pumps later, open them, take out the skimming devices and later download into a computer the numbers and other information from as many as thousands of cards at once.
They would then transfer the victims’ electronic information and numbers onto manufactured plastic cards and the use the cards to make illegal purchases, prosecutors said. The faked credit cards and false California driver’s licenses the group made in a manufacturing lab in Southern California were of “very high quality” and difficult to detect, including falsified holograms on the licenses, Flattery said. The district attorney’s office started the investigation that led to the arrests of the six suspects back in 2012, when two other people were arrested by the Gilroy Police Department for using counterfeit credit cards to buy expensive Rolex watches, prosecutors said. The office’s Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team, from Flattery’s High Tech Crimes Unit, looked into the case and discovered that members of that crew were from Southern California and had skimmed card information from local gas pumps.
The break that led to the arrests of Vaca, Gomez, Castelar and the other three conspirators earlier this month came last December, when investigators tracked two skimming crews driving from Southern California to Sunnyvale intending to buy more than $80,000 in products with phony credit cards, Flattery said. The computer team later discovered that the crews made fake cards based on information from skimming machines inside pumps at stations in the five Bay Area cities, Flattery said. Search warrants were executed at the homes of the suspects in Ontario, Fontana, Whittier and Yucaipa and investigators confiscated hundreds of fake credit cards, dozens of fraudulent state driver’s licenses, more than two dozen credit card skimming devices and lab equipment used to make phony cards, he said.
Investigators also seized a kilogram of cocaine and many weapons, including assault rifles and a grenade launcher, Flattery said. The conspirators used keys that they somehow obtained to open the pumps at night, often where they could not be seen by the station attendant, or during the day, using a van to block the view, Flattery said. The crews then inserted the skimming devices using a cable connected to a circuit board inside the pump that sent the credit and debt card data from customers into the device, according to Flattery.
The skimming devices the crews installed are available for sale commercially and have legitimate uses, such as resetting cards used at trade shows, hotels and casinos, Flattery said. The district attorney’s office is still trying to find skimming devices at other gasoline pumps in the county, Flattery said. “This is not the only crew doing this,” he said. “This kind of thing is going to go on.”
Gas station owners should change gas pump keys and inspect the pumps for skimming devices and consumers should keep watch over their card statements for any fraudulent purchases, Flattery said. Customers also should avoid using debit cards at gas stations because their cash is harder to retrieve than fraudulent credit charges to banks, he said. Gas station patrons are also advised to ask the managers of the stations they patronize if their pumps are secure, and if they do not get an answer, buy gas elsewhere, Flattery said.
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