Pasco card-skimming case heads to federal court

PASCO -- A Hungarian man caught in Pasco allegedly using a card-skimming device on an ATM to fraudulently access 543 accounts is facing federal charges.

Janos Chertes, 40, was transferred from the Franklin County jail to federal custody earlier this week and will appear in U.S. District Court in Yakima on Wednesday for a probable cause hearing.

Chertes, who is now being held in the Yakima County jail, is accused of possessing device-making equipment which affected interstate and foreign commerce.

He was arrested Sunday after he was found removing a card reader from the ATM at a Chase branch on Road 68, court documents said.

Chertes is a Hungarian citizen who has been in the United States on a tourist visa.

He and Mihai Elekes, 34, of Issaquah, were caught in a sting operation involving Pasco police, Secret Service agents and bank security officials who spent the day watching the ATM waiting for the men to return.

Elekes has been charged in Franklin County Superior Court with unlawful factoring of transactions with the special allegation that the crime was a major economic offense or series of offenses.

Elekes' next court appearance is Tuesday.

According to the federal court documents, a card-skimming device was placed on the bank machine in Pasco at least nine times between July 24 and Aug. 28.

Chase officials obtained surveillance images from the ATM and found the same man installed and removed the devices July 24, July 30-31, Aug. 6-7, Aug. 14, Aug. 21 and Aug. 27-28.

Officials said they found at least 543 customer accounts had been compromised by the activity at the Road 68 ATM, documents said.

Investigators were still working to determine the total amount of money customers lost.

The device was placed on the bank machine around 6:07 a.m. Aug. 28 and officers estimated that the suspect would returned between 10 p.m. and midnight to remove the device.

Around 11:30 p.m., a van was spotted circling the parking lot around the Chase ATM and a man got out of the van and approached the branch entrance, documents said.

Federal court documents said the man at the ATM was Chertes, but documents filed in Superior Court indicated that Chertes was driving the van and Elekes was the one seen removing the skimming device.

A Secret Service agent said he saw a suspect approach the entrance and press his body close to the card reader near the door. Customers have to swipe their cards to get access to the area where the ATM is located.

The agent said the man appeared to be manipulating the access device for longer than it would normally take to swipe a card through the machine, then entered the bank and approached the ATM, documents said.

A bank security official who was monitoring video surveillance of the branch reported that the suspect appeared to be removing the skimming device and was talking to someone through an earpiece, documents said.

Chertes and Elekes were contacted when they were meeting up to leave, documents said.

When Chertes was searched, officers found a screwdriver, a scraping tool, skimming device, modified camera similar in shape and size to equipment on an ATM, a Motorola walkie-talkie and an earpiece, documents said.

The van was also seized to be searched, and the Secret Service agent said that just looking through the window he was able to see a small plastic container that appeared to contain electronic devices.

Card-skimming devices, which are often placed over or inside the mouth of a card slot on an ATM to create a false front, read and store information encoded on the magnetic strips of debit cards that are used at the bank machine, documents said.

A miniature camera also is mounted on the ATM or concealed within the light panel to capture customers entering their PIN codes.

Once the numbers are copied, counterfeit debit cards can be made and the suspects can use the customers' PIN codes to make withdrawals from bank accounts, documents said.