ATM `skimming' case may be part of a ring
Manhattan Beach detective Joe Aiello shows the electronic underside of the fake ATM pin pad that was used to skim ATM pin passwords at the Citibank in Manhattan Beach. (Brad Graverson Staff Photographer)
George Puflene is a suspect in Manhattan Beach ATM skimming case. withdrawals from bank accounts ranging from $100 to $10,000.
George Puflene, 26, isn't talking since his arrest Sept. 25. Police believe Puflene had made a return trip to the Manhattan Village bank on Sepulveda Boulevard near Marine Avenue that evening in an attempt to steal customers' account and PIN numbers.
"We actually arrested him as he was placing the skimmer on the ATM machine," Manhattan Beach police Detective Joe Aiello said. "We found out Monday that was not the first time they had placed the skimmer on the ATM machine. We are now starting to uncover victims."
Redondo Beach resident Stephen Chan said Puflene was standing at the automated teller machine with three other men when Chan and his roommate, Ali
Al-Nasser, went to make a deposit about 8 p.m.
Puflene was feeding a stack of credit cards into the machine, but not withdrawing any money, Chan said.
"I thought he was doing credit card skimming as soon as I saw him," Chan said. "He was taking an awfully long time. He had a very large stack of cards in his hand. It looked an inch thick, a dozen, 15 cards."
Puflene and the other man were speaking a foreign language, Al-Nasser said.
Police believe Chan and Al-Nasser arrived at the ATM as Puflene and the men installed an overlay on the ATM to commit fraud.
Three of the men left together. Chan used the ATM after Puflene left alone.
Sensing they had witnessed something criminal, Al-Nasser and Chan decided to watch Puflene, who drove his white Lexus near the Bank of America branch, and called police.
Aiello said officers stopped Puflene and returned to check on the ATM. They discovered an aluminum and plastic plate placed over the ATM's keyboard.
The overlay perfectly fit onto the keyboard area at the bottom of the ATM. When someone used the keys, they pressed into the ATM's keys below to operate the machine.
As they did, a motherboard energized by a cell phone battery underneath the plate recorded the PIN codes, Aiello said.
The plate and keyboard are so similar to the real thing, police said, customers could not easily tell the difference.
"They literally built this from scratch," Aiello said.
Police discovered that the second ATM at the bank was disabled, so every customer had to use the doctored machine.
Puflene was arrested before he could install an additional device atop the card reader that would steal account numbers from magnetic stripes, Aiello said.
Police believe Puflene would have returned a couple of days later to retrieve the two devices, allowing the theft ring to create ATM cards using stolen account numbers and PIN codes to use later at ATMs to withdraw cash.
Investigators believe Puflene and his alleged counterparts had intended to install the devices on the ATM for the weekend, collecting them Sunday night.
Police did not immediately know at the time that Puflene and a theft group already had been successful with a device at the same bank.
"They don't take the money right away," Aiello said.
On Sunday, customers began seeing illegal withdrawals from their accounts and started reporting them to police, Aiello said.
Reports started rolling in on Monday, but not all of the 50 victims have made police reports.
"If they've used the Citibank ATM and they've noticed withdrawals that they did not make, then they are most likely victims of the skimming and they need to file a police report with the Manhattan Beach Police Department as soon as possible," Aiello said.
Citibank has reimbursed its customers for the money lost, making itself the primary victim.
Investigators believe a similar phony keyboard and card reader were placed on the Citibank ATM the weekend of Sept 18, 19 and 20, when customers' account numbers and PIN codes were stolen, Aiello said.
Police have reportedly recovered photographs of Puflene and another man at the machine on those dates.
Omodele Ogunmola, assistant manager at the Manhattan Beach branch, said the bank's fraud unit immediately notified customers who used the ATM that weekend. Their ATM cards were canceled and new ones were issued.
Ogunmola said the ATMs outside the bank are equipped with devices to detect tampering, but the devices were not operating when the fraud occurred.
On Monday, thieves made 100 unsuccessful attempts in Las Vegas to withdraw cash from machines using stolen numbers, Aiello said. The bank had already closed the card accounts.
The crimes also occurred after hours and on weekends, when bank employees are not around, Ogunmola and Aiello said.
ATM skimming has become an increasing crime across the nation and is often tied to Russian mobsters.
The Manhattan Beach case is the second major ATM skimming operation discovered in the South Bay since May.
As many as 1,000 people who used ATM cards to buy gas at an Arco station in Redondo Beach became victims of thieves who recorded their numbers at the pump. About $200,000 was withdrawn from accounts at several banks.
No arrests have been made.
Aiello is working to try to identify other members of the ring involved with Puflene, who remains in county jail without bail.
Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities have placed a hold on him. Puflene held a work authorization card.
Prosecutors have charged Puflene with computer access and fraud, theft, fraudulent possession and use of a scanning device, and possession of burglary tools.
Puflene pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Sept. 29 and is scheduled to return to court Wednesday.
He previously lived in Florida before coming to Southern California. He told detectives he lived with a friend, but refused to say where, Aiello said.