These foreigners ran a credit card skimming ring in the Tri-Cities, say police

Dozens of Tri-Citians were the victim of a highly sophisticated credit card scam that ended with the arrests of four Eastern Europeans.

Police say the alleged thieves weren’t caught until they had already siphoned $17,000 from accounts just after Christmas.

And there may be dozens more unknowing victims throughout Eastern Washington since police confiscated at least 268 gift cards, each one loaded with a separate account number, name and PIN number.

While the suspects were nabbed at Numerica Credit Union in Richland, court documents show they were operating out of hotels in Yakima County and driving rental cars from Seattle and Southern California.

Emil Kabirov, 21, Denis Legun, 24, Ana Onici, 22, and George Vasile, 35, appeared Friday in Benton County Superior Court.

Judge Joe Burrowes raised Kabirov’s bail to $500,000 — an amount typically reserved for defendants in murder, violent assault and certain child sex cases.

Bail is set at $100,000 each for Legun and Vasile with the stipulation that they surrender their passports before posting bond. If they don’t hand them over but want to be released, the bail amount increases to $500,000 on each.

Onici’s passport was seized as part of a search warrant, so her bail was reduced to $50,000.

A New York City police detective holds a credit card skimmer used to copy metadata from legitimate credit cards for use in the manufacture of counterfeit cards and possibly identity theft. Colleen Long Associated Press

All four have Feb. 19 trial dates on charges of first-degree theft, first-degree identity theft and second-degree possessing stolen property.

The theft includes the aggravating circumstances that it was a major economic offense, meaning there were multiple victims, a substantial monetary loss and it involved a high degree of planning.

The identity of a fifth suspect is not yet known. He got away while Richland officers were arresting Onici in the parking lot of the Duportail Street credit union, documents said.

The scheme came to light after the Richland Police Department received fraud complaints from about 20 people on Dec. 28 and 29.

The suspects may have used a skimming device attached to an ATM, gas pump or a card reader in a store to record legitimate transactions.

The stolen information, or metadata, is then downloaded from the device, providing scammers with account numbers and access PINs.

Often, that information is used to make counterfeit cards with blank gift cards so the thieves can use them like credit or debit cards at various ATMs to unlawfully withdraw money from those accounts.

An officer initially watched Numerica footage on Dec. 28 showing three different men making or trying to make illegal withdrawals from the cash machine.

The following morning, Numerica employees called police at 9:45 a.m. about a man “conducting fraudulent activity” at the ATM. They watched the man get into a Hyundai car, and relayed the California license plate to police, court documents said.

Police stopped the car and detained two men. Officer Erik Noren recognized them as two of the suspects from the previous day’s footage, documents said.

Legun told police he was from Los Angeles, but later said he was from Russia. He did not have any legal identification.

Police determined the Hyundai was rented in Van Nuys, Calif., on Dec. 26. A search of the car turned up 102 gift cards, court documents said.

Benton County Justice Center File Tri-City Herald

The other man refused to give his name, documents said. Jail staff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents later identified him as Kabirov.

Officers were still dealing with Legun and Kabirov when dispatchers took another call from Numerica at 11:45 a.m. about a man suspected of withdrawing money fraudulently.

Vasile, who was contacted in the credit union’s vestibule, gave police an “International Driver’s Document.”

He said he was en route from Chicago to Seattle to visit a friend, and had just arrived in town, according to court documents. He told officers he was driving a Kia Forte, which they discovered had been rented from Sea-Tac on Dec. 27.

Vasile, identified as one of the alleged thieves, was arrested.

He had $220 cash, a SIM card tool, two identification cards, five credit cards and six gift cards on him, documents said. Bank names, personal identification numbers and dollar amounts were written on white stickers placed on several of the gift cards.

An additional 54 loaded gift cards and $1,260 cash were found in his rental car, documents said.

When interviewed, Vasile only said he was from Romania before asking for an attorney.

Yakima County sheriff’s deputies searched a hotel room believed used by the suspects. They found two stacks of cash, one labeled “Day 1 $2,700” and the other also “Day 1 $2,500,” court documents said.

The same day the three men were arrested, Dec. 29, Onici was seen trying to get money from at least four accounts, documents said.

She allegedly had four receipts on her when stopped in the driver’s seat of a Jeep, which was rented from Sea-Tac on Dec. 25. Police also found 106 gift cards with PINs written on the back inside the Jeep, court documents said.

Police said Onici told them she was from Romania, had lived in the United States for seven months and moved to Moses Lake, then Puyallup, Tacoma, Renton and most recently California. She said she had no family in the country and had traveled from California to Washington state to spend the holidays with friends, documents said.

However, Onici’s attorney, Kevin Holt told the judge that he was hired by her family who lives in the Seattle area. He said Onici actually is from Moldova, has been in the U.S. for seven to nine months and has a job in the Seattle area.

Onici claimed she had rented the Jeep on Christmas Day, driven to Yakima and stayed in a hotel.

She said she met the unidentified man online and agreed to drive him for $100 the first day, with the man covering gas and her room. She said the man didn’t stay at the hotel, but was picked up and dropped off at a nearby convenience store, court documents said.

Onici claimed that on Dec. 28, the two drove to Richland and stopped at Safeway, Starbucks, five or six financial institutions and a shopping mall.

The next morning, the man allegedly gave four cards to Onici and told her she could make more money if she used the cards. She told police that each card she tried showed as stolen.

Documents said that in a search of Onici’s hotel room, officers seized her passport and a purse that held $11,980 in cash.

Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.