ATM bandits drain cash from hundreds of accounts. Thieves likely have fled Tri-Cities

How to avoid becoming debit card fraud victim

Sgt. Aaron Clem of the Kennewick Police Department offers tips on minimizing the risk of becoming a victim of debit card fraud when making purchases in a store or at the gas pumps.
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Sgt. Aaron Clem of the Kennewick Police Department offers tips on minimizing the risk of becoming a victim of debit card fraud when making purchases in a store or at the gas pumps.

Bandits stole money from more than 200 bank accounts in one of the largest skimming operations to strike the Tri-Cities in recent memory.

Investigators believe the ATM bandits who rolled into town in early February have fled the area, but in their wake they drained at least $100,000 from 215 accounts in Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.

Authorities are not sure how many suspects were involved or exactly how many skimmers they attached to card readers, but they believe one was at Joe’s Chevron on McMurray Street and Jadwin Avenue in Richland, said Kennewick police Sgt. Aaron Clem.

Skimmers attach on top of a credit card reader and grab the information from the magnetic strip when you swipe your credit or debit card. They often have a secret camera that also catches the PIN code. The information is either stored or transmitted to the crooks.

People can spot them by looking for tampering and also wiggling the card reader. If the device seems loose or not working correctly, a skimmer might be attached.

Officers were advising people to either use the chip in their card or, if they use their magnetic strip, to pick the credit card option rather than the debit card option.

First thefts in mid-February

The first reports about the bandits surfaced around Feb. 13, when a man wearing a green jacket and knit cap took out money from HAPO ATMs across the Tri-Cities using information stolen from accounts.

In the car with him was a man wearing a dark jacket and a scarf across his face. That man was caught in other images at ATMs, appearing to wear fake glasses and a false nose.

Pasco police are trying to find information about this man who tried using stolen credit card numbers to steal money. Tri-City Herald

During the next week, the number of people affected quickly grew from 25 to more than 200.

Most of the people affected were in Kennewick, which saw 115 accounts hit. Clem called it the largest skimming operation he can remember in the city.

Richland police received 75 to 100 theft reports, said Sgt. Drew Florence.

Pasco was the least affected, with 25 victims losing $22,000, Sgt. Scott Warren said.

Pasco Skimmer
A possible third person was caught on camera as part of a investigation into people who used stolen debit cards to get thousands of dollars. Pasco Police Department

Photos of skimmer suspects

Pasco police shared more photos that appear to show the man with the scarf at the ATM, and what may be a third person.

The fraudsters tend to work in teams when they roll into an area, Clem said.

Finding them is complicated by the fact they likely don’t live in the area where they are stealing.

They also work quickly, attaching the devices on card readers, getting the information, stealing the money and leaving in a matter of days.

Pasco second man
A second man sitting in the passenger seat appears in other photos wearing fake glasses and a false nose as he takes money from an ATM. Pasco Police Department

For instance, Richland police helped catch four people who used information skimmed from debit cards to steal $17,000 from 20 people during two days in late December.

Officers caught up with the ring when Numerica Credit Union employees called about a suspicious man at an ATM.

In another Tri-Cities case, a pair of fraudsters flew in from Miami, and were later caught because a Medical Lake, Wash., woman realized her card was being used in a Kennewick store.

Anyone with information about the fraud can call police through the non-emergency dispatch number at 509-628-0333.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.