Iowa Credit Union Helps Nab Card Scammers
The $14.9 million Municipal Credit Union in Sioux City, Iowa, helped police nab two California suspects in a credit card cash advance fraud scheme.
The cooperative’s assistance prompted law enforcement authorities to post a nationwide bulletin Wednesday to alert financial institutions that may have been scammed by the duo in three other states and possibly more.
The police investigation also revealed the suspects hit more than 100 financial institutions in Iowa over three weeks.
Michael Antoin Thomas, 45, of Oakland, Calif., shown at left, walked into Municipal CU Feb. 5, told a teller that his mother just died and he needed a $9,800 cash advance on his credit card to pay for funeral expenses. His accomplice, Barbara Joan Lopp, 53, of Stockton, Calif., also shown, was standing outside by her car about a block away from the credit union.
But a teller told Thomas the credit union only accepts MasterCard transactions.
After Thomas left, Municipal CU got a call from Tim Piepho, president/CEO of the $75 million Telco-Triad Community Credit Union, also in Sioux City, that Thomas attempted to make a Visa credit card cash advance at one of his branches.
Peipho said the teller became suspicious because of the large $9,800 cash advance. What’s more, the teller grew even more suspicious when Thomas called the toll-free number on the credit card from his mobile phone and handed it to the teller to speak to the other person on the line, who police said was working with Thomas.
“We knew this was a scam and from that point we called police,” Peipho said
Piepho also alerted his other branches and Municipal CU, the $25 million Midwest Community Credit Union, and the $24 million Sioux Valley Community CU, both in Sioux City, Iowa.
The credit union CEOs and police said they never thought they would see Thomas again.
“Believe it or not, he came back exactly one week later [Feb. 12] and tried to do a MasterCard [cash advance], which we do have,” Roger Hake, president/CEO of the Municipal Credit Union, said.
Thomas also used the same line that he was in town because his mother died and needed cash to pay for her funeral, according to Hake.
“We knew at that point there were some issues and my staff very carefully stalled him for 11 and a half minutes.” Hake said. “They bluffed the guy by saying they were moving files and couldn’t find the form they needed to complete the cash advance transaction and they just kept talking to him.”
Thomas also called the fake toll-free number on the back of the credit card from his mobile phone and handed it to the teller.
“The teller did take his phone and talked to his supposed credit card company contact,” Hake said. “The person on the other end asked for the teller’s last name and the whole nine yards. It sounded legit but she knew there was something wrong.”
When police arrived, they questioned Thomas and arrested him in the credit union. His accomplice, Lopp, also was arrested.
Thomas was charged with five counts of forgery and identity theft and one count of ongoing criminal conduct. Lopp was charged with four counts of forgery and one count of ongoing criminal conduct.
The police investigation revealed Thomas and Lopp regularly flew to Iowa and other states, rented a car and went to credit unions and banks in Iowa to carry out their scheme.
“Based on documents and interviews, they have done this [at] in excess of 100 financial institutions in Iowa over the past three weeks,” according to a police affidavit.
However, the police revealed Wednesday that Thomas and Lopp were traveling across the U.S. and were in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
Police believed, however, that the suspects were in other states as well. This led the police to release a public credit card/financial institutions scam-nationwide alert.
“The Sioux City Police Department is asking any financial institution who has been a victim and who the suspects have attempted to victimize to please contact their local law enforcement agency to file a report,” according to the public information bulletin.
The bulletin also requested law enforcement agencies with similar or related cases to contact the Sioux City Police Department.
“Financial institutions may not know they were a victim until they get the official rejection from the credit card company,” Sioux City Police Detective Zach Lewis said. “Whether financial institutions gave them money or not, we would like to take statements just to get everything that we possibly can on this case.”
Police said the fake credit cards and driver’s licenses were of professional quality. However, they were also alarmed that the 1-800 phone number on the back of the credit card also was bogus. The California suspects were using several fraudulent IDs and credit cards in the names of individuals from Illinois, Maryland and California.
“When a bank employee would call the 1-800 number on the back of the card, another person in the criminal organization would have all the necessary information for the financial institutions to approve the transaction,” according to the police affidavit. “Since this was a fake credit card, the credit union would eventually discover that this was a fraudulent transaction when they were not reimbursed by the credit card company.”
Lewis said the fake phone number on the back of the credit card was the first time police had seen it locally.
“I’m sure it’s not the first time it’s happened, but we never had anything local like this before,” he said.
But Piepho and Hake said Thomas called the fake phone number on the credit card and handed his mobile phone to the tellers.
Nevertheless, Piepho also said it’s the credit union’s policy never to call the 1-800 number on the back of the credit card because it could be fraudulent. Instead, credit union employees look up the card’s customer service number on the web.