August 8, 2008

Possible credit scheme link to national ID thefts probed

August 07, 2008 11:25 am

By Anita Miller
News Editor

San Marcos — It might be a long shot, but then again, maybe not.

San Marcos Police Commander Terry Nichols says it’s not out of the realm of possibility that two Mexican citizens arrested here last month for using bogus credit cards could have ties to a major computer hacking and identity theft case that just resulted in federal indictments in Massachusetts.

That story “could play into part of ours,” Nichols said on Wednesday, exactly three weeks after local authorities called a press conference to announce the two arrests and confiscation of more than 50 phony credit cards and approximately $27,000 worth of illegally purchased electronics, video games and clothing.

The federal case, as reported by the Associated Press on Wednesday, involved more than 41 million stolen credit and debit card numbers. Eleven individuals including an informant to the U.S. Secret Service and people from Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and China were charged.

If there’s a difference, Nichols said, it’s that 31-year-old Gabriel Rivas of Mexico City and 37-year-old Hector Gomez of Guadalajara are believed to have been using stolen data, while the federal indictments allege those suspects were actually hacking into systems to steal personal financial data.

In both cases, investigators are still working to determine just who the victims are. Nichols said his detectives are working more with banks than individuals, at least so far in the probe.

“We’re still tracking down victims and tracking down banks,” Nichols said, adding that there are “probably a dozen” banks across the U.S. that Rivas and Gomez had cards purporting to be from. “Some of them may have up to six to eight cardholders” affected.

The pair had apparently been pulling off the scam for some time before they were caught at the San Marcos Best Buy Store on July 11. The day before that, a Michigan resident had phoned the store to report his card had been fraudulently used.

Store personnel recognized Rivas and Gomez when they returned and phoned police. What initially appeared to be just another case of identity theft soon proved to be much bigger. A rented Hummer the pair were traveling in was filled to overflowing with illegal purchases that police say the men intended to sell back in Mexico.

In addition to trying to track down banks and victims, Nichols said he’s still trying to return the stolen merchandise back to its proper owners. “We’re figuring out who took a loss on it,” he said.

Nichols said in the weeks since the story broke, he’s heard from residents across the country wondering whether they were victims.

And he can’t answer all their questions just yet. “Basically we’re still investigating,” he said, noting that some banks have also begun to take a closer look and sharing information on what might be the common denominator.

“The banks are taking it on themselves to find a commonality between all the different banks across the U.S. Is it a Web site, a country, a company? It could be a combination,” he said.

Nichols also said it may never be known if the local and federal cases are linked. “There’s probably no way we’ll ever find out or prove if our guys got their information from this organization.” Still, he added, “it could be we could find out.”

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