BOTHELL — The woman in line at a Bothell ATM wondered why the man in front of her was spending so much time hitting buttons.
Something just didn’t seem right on that December day in 2010 as she waited her turn outside the Canyon Park bank branch.
“I was thinking, ‘Why is this taking so long?’” she said.
She decided she would try the bank’s drive-through ATM instead. She noticed the same man was in front of her in a car with another man.
Cherie, who didn’t want her last name used for this story out of concern for her safety, grew suspicious and reported her worries to a bank manager.
As she drove away, she noticed the man’s car in front of her again and jotted down the license plate number.
The car pulled into another bank parking lot.
By then, Cherie, 42, had no doubt the man was up to no good. She called 911.
Her instinct proved critical in bringing down a ring of thieves skilled in the high-tech criminal enterprise known as skimming. Federal officials said the crooks stole about $1 million by installing devices to steal debit, credit and personal identification numbers from unsuspecting customers.
An ATM skimmer fits on top of a legitimate card slot. It reads data on the magnetic strip, and the credit card number is stored on the skimmer device to be retrieved later. Hidden cameras also often are used to capture PIN numbers.
Bothell police caught both men shortly after the woman reported her suspicions.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan personally thanked the woman and Bothell detectives Michael Stone, Ryan Odegaard and Jon Caban for their quick actions.
“As a victim of skimming, I know the mix of anger, frustration and helplessness you feel when you discover someone has raided your bank account,” Durkan said.
Both men turned out to be Romanian nationals in the U.S. illegally. The arrests later led to the leader of the skimming ring. Ismail Sali, 53, of Kirkland, pleaded guilty to federal charges in March and has agreed to pay more than $350,000 in restitution. Three co-defendants have been sentenced to five years in prison.
ATM skimming is increasing and becoming more organized, according to a 2011 federal report.
At the same time, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies increasingly are working together to catch skimmers, said Robert Kierstead, an assistant special agent with the U.S. Secret Service in Seattle. People waiting in lines also are reporting suspicious activity more frequently, he said.
Those tips are important.
“The best thing is if they have set it up we know they are coming back to get it,” Kierstead said.
In July, a Pierce County woman, 42, was arrested outside a bank in Lynnwood for investigation of identity theft after allegedly placing a skimming device on an ATM. Surveillance cameras placed her at machines from California to Skagit County. She could face federal charges, Kierstead said.
In November, Everett police arrested a Redmond man after he allegedly placed a skimming device on an ATM at a bank in Silver Lake. Police believe the device captured more than 70 bank card numbers.
“It has become a federal case and he’s awaiting sentencing,” Kierstead said.
Last year, 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 some crime groups from Europe and Asia.
Cherie, the Bothell-area mom who helped bring down the skimming ring, said she is struck by how the crimes can occur in broad daylight with such inconspicuous technology.
“I think it would fool anybody,” she said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.