Ismail Sali, 53, of Kirkland, Wash., confessed to bank fraud, conspiracy, access device fraud and aggravated identity theft. His plea, outlined in a 24-page indictment filed against him by the U.S. District Attorney for the Western District of Washington, came in just days before his trial was scheduled to begin. [See 2 More ATM Skimming Suspects Jailed.]
Sali and co-conspirators were charged after the U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force linked them to crimes dating back to 2007.
Under the terms of his plea agreement, Sali's defense is expected to recommend a sentence of no less than six years in prison; prosecutors are expected to recommend no more than eight years in prison.
Sali has agreed to make restitution of $357,256. He also is forfeiting any interest in the $10,000 seized at his arrest, as well as three vehicles, computer equipment and three firearms. His sentencing has been set for June 15.
Breaking the Seattle Ring
Last September, federal investigators seized card skimmers, fake ATM face plates, gift cards and electronic encoding equipment during a raid. The home, shared by Sali and co-conspirator Eugen Tirca, a Romanian citizen, connected all the fraud dots to Sali.
Investigators also found documents tying Sali to defendants Ion Armeanca, Dan Petri, Ovidiu Mateescu and Claudiu Tudor, who had previously been arrested and prosecuted for skimming activity.
Authorities say most of the money Sali and his group stole was sent overseas to associates in Romania. Some of the co-conspirators convicted in the case also were Romanian citizens believed to be illegally residing in the United States during the time of the crimes.
"Based on this investigation, I have determined that Ismail Sali and Eugen Tirca, and others, have placed electronic skimming devices and video surveillance devices on various ATMs and have used, without authorization, improperly obtained personally identifying information of others, such as account data and PINs, to execute, or attempt to execute, transactions at ATMs and various retailers for the purpose of accessing funds to which they are not entitled," said Malcolm Frederick, special agent with the Secret Service, during his testimony included in the September complaint.
Tirca is scheduled for sentencing on April 27. Armeanca is expected to be sentenced March 30.
Detection, Prevention Tips
The Seattle case is a prime example of international skimming scams that are taking advantage of banking institutions and customers across the U.S.
During a March 2 presentation at RSA Conference 2012, U.S. Secret Service agent Erik Rasmussen discussed the organized crime rings behind incidents such as Seattle's.
"Payments systems attacks are not going away," says Rasmussen, whose card fraud investigations within the Cyber Intelligence Section of the Secret Service's Criminal Investigative Division stem back to 2004. Attacks on payments systems have exploded in the past two years, Rasmussen says. The common connection among these attacks: international crime rings, which are increasingly profiting from card compromises, whether through skimming or backend attacks.
The best way financial institutions, retailers and others touched by card fraud can mitigate risks is to increase information-sharing and collaboration with law enforcement.
"Once the hackers get into the system, it's all become too easy for them," Rasmussen says.
The Secret Service and U.S. Department of Justice offer these tips for institutions to share with customers, to help detect and prevent skimming scams:
- If the access door to a lobby ATM is broken, don't use the ATM, go somewhere else.
- If there is more than one ATM, and a sign has been placed on one of the units saying it is out of service, go somewhere else - the sign could be an attempt to direct traffic to the machine where skimming equipment is installed.
- Check the machine before putting your card in - is the card slot securely in the machine? Has anything been installed around the edges of the machine that could conceal a camera? Is any glue or sticky substance around the key pad or card slot?
- Always attempt to cover your hand when you enter your PIN so that if there is a camera, the numbers cannot be captured.
- Watch your account activity and report any unauthorized credit or debit charges immediately.