Skimmer scammers busted in NYC
by WES MAYER
(Correction: On the front page of the Sunday, June 23, 2013, edition of The Newnan Times-Herald, the four men arrested for fraud in New York City were incorrectly labeled in the headline as Russians. Some or all of them are either legal immigrants from Armenia, or are American citizens with Armenian heritage or ties, according to Coweta County Sheriff's Office investigators.)
In 2012, during the first quarter of the year, too many Coweta County residents found themselves victims of credit card fraud. Now, more than a year later, the criminals responsible are finally being brought to justice.
“They’re going to be held accountable for their behavior in this county,” said Coweta County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Jason Fetner.
The four men whose crimes have been traced back to Coweta County were arrested in New York City on March 21, Fetner said. These four, Garegin Spartalyan, Davit Kudugulyan, Hayk Dzhandzhapanyan and Aram Martirosian, are currently being prosecuted by the NYC district attorney’s office and are being held in Rikers Island jail. There is a good chance they will be extradited to Coweta for further prosecution in the near future.
Coweta County was not the only location these men stole personal identities and money. Their crimes struck hundreds of Americans across Texas, Tennessee and Georgia. The four had their operation down to a science, and if not for the hard work of Coweta investigators Fetner and Chad McDonald, and their combined efforts with District Attorney Dan Brody in NYC, the suspects might have continued to get away with stealing thousands of dollars from hundreds of unsuspecting people.
They did it using credit card skimmers, devices which extract data from credit cards as they were swiped at the pumps of RaceTrac and RaceWay gas stations. According to further investigation by the NYC DA’s office, it was learned that Kudugulyan, who is considered to be the operation’s ring leader, used to work at a RaceTrac somewhere in the Western United States. It was working there where he discovered how the RaceTrac gas pumps worked and how he could engineer a device to steal credit card numbers and debit card pins.
The device Kudugulyan possibly personally engineered could be installed in a few short minutes at any RaceTrac, Fetner said. The men could pull up, open up the pump with keys Kudugulyan still had, quickly plug in the skimmer while nobody was paying attention and drive away. What made their operation so successful was the attachment of Bluetooth chips to these skimmers. This allowed the men to be able to have data downloaded straight to their phones or other devices from a close distance, and they would never have to return to the pump to retrieve the data.
The men would drive around Texas, Tennessee and Georgia extracting personal data in this manner. Then they would return to New York City to withdraw money from victims’ accounts throughout ATM machines scattered throughout the city, Fetner said. The men could hop on the subway and get off at each stop, go to the nearest ATM, start swiping the cards until they were rejected and move on to the next stop. The men could usually steal about $500 per card per ATM, authorities said.
In New York City, the four men could easily blend in, and for far too long their operation could not be traced. According to Fetner, further investigations have discovered that these men have mansions in Las Vegas and numerous titles to expensive boats and vehicles.
“These guys were like organized gangsters like the ones in the ‘40s,” Fetner said.
Their operation wasn’t perfect, though.
Their downfall ended up being with their choice of location and a baseball hat.
According to Fetner, during his and McDonald’s investigation of the 50 fraud cases linked to the Newnan RaceTrac on Bullsboro Drive, they were able to trace the money flow to banks and ATM machines all over New York City. After contacting the city’s banks, Fetner and McDonald began to receive numerous ATM photos of a recognizable Eastern European man who always wore a large pair of reflective sunglasses and a unique baseball hat with a symbol on the side.
Despite all these photographs that incriminated this man, New York City officials stated that it would be nearly impossible to locate him in a city filled with millions of people. Even with the photographs, officials had no idea where he would turn up next, and there was no way to get a step ahead and catch him.
The trick was finding what made these four men unique, and it actually ended up being the stolen credit card numbers themselves that brought them down.
According to Fetner, there is a bank in Texas very similar to the Bank of Coweta (now the Bank of North Georgia). Fetner and McDonald realized that the first four digits on every Bank of Coweta credit card were the same, and they contacted New York City to flag every ATM visit where cards with these first four numbers were used. The chances of a Coweta County resident using his or her card to withdraw money in multiple ATM machines throughout New York were almost nonexistent, Fetner said.
The bank in Texas also used this method for their credit card numbers, and by also flagging the first four numbers from the Texas, New York City officials caught up to the thieves. The men were finally traced to a hotel room, raided and apprehended. According to Fetner, in the room, New York City officials found more than $200,000 in cash, hundreds of cashier’s checks worth thousands of dollars, laptop computers and other devices associated with cloning credit cards, blocks of blank cards and cloned cards and a very familiar baseball hat.
Fetner said that after being in contact with Brody and other investigators in the NYC DA’s office, he discovered the hat-wearing man in the ATM photographs was Spartalyan. Fetner almost didn’t believe it when NYC sent him the mugshots of the four men because this Spartalyan looked much more overweight than whoever the hat-wearing guy was at the ATM machines. But Fetner later found a heavier Spartalyan from an old driver’s license photo, and he put these two Spartalyan mugs with the ATM photos in order to identify him.
More and more evidence soon piled up.
According to Fetner, investigations uncovered hotel records across the U.S. where the men had stayed under Martirosian’s name, flight records to and from NYC during which Spartalyan and Kudugulyan had flown together, and there were numerous GPS pings locating the men’s phones to have been within 100 yards of RaceTrac and RaceWay gas stations in Texas, Tennessee and Georgia.
Investigations have discovered that these men were part of the criminal organization known as AP-13, or Armenian Power, Fetner said. The gang has strong ties to criminals in Eastern Europe and Mexico (M is the 13th letter in the alphabet) and is known for dealing in financial crime such as credit card fraud. According to New York City officials, these four men aren’t giving anything away about AP-13, most likely because it could endanger their own lives and lives of their families.
The four men are still being prosecuted for hundreds of fraud indictments in New York City.
According to Fetner, fraud cases can either be prosecuted where the victims reside or where the fraud takes place. The New York City’s DA’s office and the CCSO are going to make sure these four men serve as much time as possible for their crimes, and this may mean they will be coming to Coweta County for further prosecution soon.