LYNNWOOD — A woman who authorities believe might have ties to Romanian organized crime is suspected of attaching a device to bank ATMs along the West Coast, including Lynnwood, to steal money from unsuspecting customers.
The Pierce County woman, 42, was arrested for investigation of 20 count
s of identity theft Saturday afternoon outside a bank in the 17000 block of Highway 99 in Lynnwood. A federal task force has been investigating her since February after someone illegally tapped into an ATM in San Francisco, according to court records.
The woman is accused of installing what police call “a skimming device” to collect personal debit and credit card information and personal identification numbers. Typically, the information is copied onto another blank card’s magnetic stripe and used by an identity thief to make purchases or withdraw cash in the name of the actual account holder.
A judge on Monday set bail at $50,000.
Police were alerted Saturday by a man saying he witnessed the woman install the device on the bank’s ATM.
An official with the bank’s cyber investigations and forensics division told police that there had been similar crimes in the area, according to a police affidavit establishing probable cause to arrest the woman. Suspects tend to place and remove skimming devices on weekends, he said.
The bank investigator saw the suspect sitting on the ground smoking a cigarette near the ATM machine. He told police he recognized her from footage from other ATM surveillance cameras. She’s a suspect in similar crimes from California to Mount Vernon in Skagit County, officials said.
A Lynnwood police detective said the device was attached to the underside of the ATM and appeared to have been painted to match the color of the ATM.
A special agent with the U.S. Secret Service in Seattle told Lynnwood police “there is a high probability” that she has ties to Romanian organized crime, according to court papers. A spokesman for the agency could not be reached for comment Monday.
Earlier this month, the FBI issued a warning to consumers to be aware of skimming. It pointed to several similar schemes across the country and found “ATM skimming is a favorite activity of Eurasian crime groups.”
Romanians have been involved in skimming in other parts of the country, according to FBI reports.
In Miami, four Romanians were arrested in 2009 and eventually pleaded guilty to fraud and identity theft after they made and placed skimming devices on ATMs throughout four Florida counties.
In Atlanta, two Romanians were charged and pleaded guilty to being part of a criminal crew that stole account information from nearly 400 bank customers through the use of skimming equipment they installed on ATMs.
The Lynnwood bank has two sets of doors with a magnetic card reader on the outside of the first entry door that requires customers to swipe their cards to access the ATM.
Security tape showed a woman pushing her body against the card reader to enter the first set of doors. She then is seen removing the skimmer from her purse, wiping the area above the ATM keypad and installing the skimming device to the ATM, according to court papers.
There were eight other instances where she is believed to use skimming machines. Bank officials believe she gained access to 320 accounts and stole about $34,000, court papers said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.