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Credit-card robbers hit ATMs in 'tsunami' attacks

A Montreal-based gang has targeted banks and stores in British Columbia and across the West in a wave of credit- and debit-card crime a Vancouver Crown prosecutor describes as a "tsunami fraud," CBC News has learned.

Montreal-based gang targets banks, stores in Western Canada and Ontario

A Montreal-based gang has targeted banks and stores in British Columbia and across the West in a credit- and debit-card crime a Vancouver Crown prosecutor describes as "tsunami fraud."

Connections between suspects uncovered in a CBC News investigation indicate a pattern of criminality dating back to at least 2007, including convictions in Australia and New Zealand, prosecutor Peter Stabler told CBC News.

"Usually, about a dozen or so people are sent out en masse as a group to either go and skim information from ATM machines — but normally, that's already been pre-skimmed by another group," Stabler said.

"Then they make massive amounts of forged credit cards and these 12 people, for example, are each given 10 or 20 or 30 credit cards and they hit 10 or 12 ATM machines in an area all at the same time.

"So they just overload that system. They just take out so much money. It's within usually a 24-hour period so by the time the alert comes on, they're gone."

"Tsunami fraud" is part of an identity theft phenomenon that appears to be growing exponentially, Stabler said.

An increasing number of organized crime groups are choosing credit and debit card fraud over drug profits, drawn by the promise of a lucrative payout with relatively little danger.

Crime group has links to New Zealand, Australia

Evidence of the group examined by CBC News dates back to a traffic stop and the arrest of three men in Cardinal, Ont., in February 2007.

The Montreal-based criminal organization has a history of debit and credit fraud. (CBC)

According to police, Oscar Soto-Segovia, Navaneeth Ponnambalam and Jonathan Shao were stopped in a car containing 11 compromised point-of-sales terminals, forged credit and debit cards and equipment needed to scan and transmit card information.

Soto-Segovia was released on bail but arrested in the Lower Mainland in the spring of 2009. He and a co-accused Alexis Guillermo Esquivel-Lemus were charged with placing compromised point-of-sales terminals in Safeway stores in the Fraser Valley and using a Bluetooth device to obtain card information. Soto-Segovia pleaded guilty and received one day in jail.

Court documents show Esquivel-Lemus was accused of tampering with a point-of-sales terminal in Nanaimo in November 2009.

He and six other men — Ralph Alphonse, Saleheddine Fouzi, Giovanni Patroni-Hernandez, Diego Aparicio-Arguedas, Jose Leon-Salinas and Amine Mecheddal — were charged with trafficking in forged or falsified credit cards in Vancouver, Burnaby, Coquitlam and elsewhere in B.C. in January and February 2010.

Police in Edmonton recently sought the arrest of Esquivel-Lemus, Alphonse, Fouzi and Patroni-Hernandez for stealing more than $500,000 from ATMs in that city in the summer of 2010.

In July 2010, police in Saskatoon arrested Aparicio-Arguedas in a hotel room. He was found with $100,000 in a briefcase and accused in a scheme in that city that involved more than 600 compromised debit cards.

In another development, documents obtained from prosecutors in New Zealand show Esquivel-Lemus and Patroni-Hernandez arrived in Auckland in June 2010 claiming they planned to hike and surf. The pair fell under suspicion when a series of point of sales terminals were stolen from retail stores in and replaced with compromised ones in a manner similar to the Safeway thefts in the Lower Mainland.

The pair were caught along with another Canadian when they picked up a package full of skimming equipment mailed from New Westminster, B.C..

And last month, an Australian judge sentenced Navanaath Ponnambalam — the other man arrested in Ontario in 2007 — to eight years in jail after he was found guilty of stealing more than $400,000 from 4,500 bank customers in Western Australia.

A jury found he tampered with point-of-sales terminals at McDonald's restaurants in 2009.

No criminal records

Stabler says members of the group are deliberately chosen.

"They are picked in Montreal on the basis that they don't have a record. All the people that we've had convicted have never — as far as we know — committed another crime," Stabler said. "So they come before the courts with no record. I say to the court strongly that this is obviously organized crime and they're facilitating it. And they tend to get sentenced accordingly, instead of what I try to say 'No — they know they're helping organized crime.' "

According to details entered in the New Zealand court case against Esquivel-Lemus and Patroni-Hernandez, the scam in Canada operated for four years and cost in excess of $100 million. An average of 200 point-of-sales terminals were stolen from Canadian retailers every month in 2008.

In New Zealand, the men were charged with participating in an organized crime group. Similar legislation exists in Canada and carries much heavier sentences than those handed out so far for those convicted in the "tsunami fraud" ring. The maximum sentence for them has been two years less a day.

"I've been doing this for many years now and as technology's improved, the pace and volume of this crime is just going up exponentially every year. It's extremely easy, it's extremely fast, extremely lucrative," Stabler said.

"The chance of really getting caught is low and the penalties are improving but they vary considerably. So — just from a street level point of view — if you steal $300,000 and you get 18 months or two years less a day in jail plus you're out on parole in one third of that — was it worth it? As a criminal you're probably going to say yes."