Two men pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Thursday in connection with a Maplewood-based scheme to alter lost and stolen credit cards.
Stelian Cipu, 31, of Romania, pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Ion Datcu, 51, of Seattle, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and one count of aggravated identity theft.
The duo traveled from Seattle to Minnesota in March. They admitted to secretly attaching a "skimming device" to an ATM in the entrance to TCF Bank in Maplewood on two occasions. The device was designed to capture data from ATM cards' magnetic strips.
The information could then be encoded on lost or stolen credit cards. The scheme allows a lost or stolen card to be used, even when the card has been deactivated, because the card contains data from an active account.
On March 15, an individual contacted the Maplewood Police Department to report two suspicious men walking from the TCF Bank to the Bremer Bank, according to a U.S. Secret Service affidavit. Police stopped the men, and found a stolen credit card in Datcu's pocket.
In his plea, Datcu admitted to the possession of 17 credit cards belonging to other people. Police checked the recovered cards, and found that the access device data had been altered.
A subsequent search warrant of the defendants' Maplewood hotel room located 47 Visa gift cards, a portable credit card scanner, a magnetic card strip reader, a thumb-drive electronic storage device, and a laptop computer. Authorities found access device numbers from 230 separate accounts on the computer.
Jeanne Cooney, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said that the case is the first of its kind in Minnesota, although federal prosecutors have pursued similar cases in other states.
"It's an interesting crime in that it's the first time our office has dealt with it," Cooney said.
TCF Bank spokesperson Jason Korstange said local bank branches offer flyers showing customers how to identify an altered ATM.
The device is placed on the slot where customers swipe their cards. Customers should examine the slot and notify bank employees if it looks abnormal, he said.
"That's a pretty sophisticated situation, and we watch for that all the time," Korstange said.
The defendants face a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison on the conspiracy charge. Datcu faces an additional mandatory two-year minimum penalty on the aggravated identity theft charge.