Half a dozen arrests have been made in an ATM skimming spreethat affected credit unions in Washington, Oregon,Nevada, Arizona and Idaho and involved the theft ofmore than half a million dollars, according to the U.S. Attorney'sOffice for the Western District of Washington.

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The government said the crime ring used illegal Romanianimmigrants.

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Three suspects arrested earlier this month have been identifiedas Ionut Buzbuchi of Renton, Wash., Mihai Eleckes of Issaquah,Wash., and Beneyam Asrat G-Sallassie of Seattle.

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According to the U.S. Attorney's office, Buzbuchi and Eleckesallegedly stole more than $160,000 from account holders at the $9.2billion, Seattle-based BECU, the $1.1 billion, Tacoma, Wash.-basedWatermark CU, the $4.9 billion, Palo Alto, Calif.-based First TechFCU and Chase Bank branch ATMs. Watermark CU recently merged with Tacoma-based Sound CU and operates underthe Sound CU name.

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A Sound CU representative said Watermark CU's risk managementdepartment was notified of a skimming breach by BECU. Sound CUdetermined someone had been placing a device on the vestibule doorof a branch ATM and leaving it there for a few hours a day forapproximately three weeks.

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A total of 230 payment cards were involved, 68 of which did notbelong to Watermark CU members; following the breach, Sound CUcontacted each affected member and notified the institutions of thenon-members, the CU said.

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Buzbuchi and Eleckes appeared to have skimmed accountinformation in Washington, Idaho and Arizona, sometimes byinstalling skimming devices on the access doors of lobbies whereATMs are located, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

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G-Sallassie is charged with stealing more than $394,000 afterskimming information from as many as 1,800 accounts in Washington,Oregon, California and Nevada, according to the U.S. Attorney'sOffice. Seattle police arrested G-Sallassie at a Chase Bank branchin South Seattle after Chase security personnel caught the suspectattempting a fraudulent ATM withdrawal.

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BECU said approximately 280 member accounts were compromised inthe attacks.

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“BECU was one of the multiple financial institutions targeted bythe individuals recently arrested and the BECU security risk teamplayed a critical role in ensuring the individuals wereapprehended,” the credit union said. “Since this event, BECU hasimplemented additional ATM security controls designed to deterfuture skimming incidents.”

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First Tech FCU confirmed that some of its members were affectedby the skimming scam and said it notified members and activated itsincident response plan immediately.

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“We did cooperate fully with the authorities investigating thisscam and would like to thank them for their diligence in making thearrests,” First Tech CU said. “We continually educate our membersabout how to protect themselves from fraudulent activities.”

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Two more arrests were made last week in connection to theskimming scam. Ismail Sali of Kirkland, Wash. and Eugen Tirca, alsoresiding in Kirkland, Wash. and a Romanian national illegallyliving in the U.S., are charged with possession of access deviceequipment, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. Investigators believethe suspects are connected to defendants who were previouslyarrested and prosecuted for skimming.

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“We believe that with this most recent arrest, we havelocated and dismantled the nerve center of one of the most prolificrings, which used illegal immigrants from Romania to commit thefrauds,” said U.S. Attorney Jenny A. Durkan, chair of the JusticeDepartment's Cybercrime and Intellectual Property Enforcementworking group.

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According to a complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office,Sali and Tirca allegedly stole account information by installingelectronic skimming and video surveillance devices on Seattle areaATMs. Their crimes affected account holders at BECU, the $4.4billion, Anchorage-based Alaska USA FCU and several large banks,the complaint said.

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Alaska USA FCU said it could not comment on any investigationsin process.

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The U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force isinvestigating the recent skimming incidents. The arrests come onthe heels of an ATM skimming gang leader's July sentencing and the June accusation against four Romanians in an ATM skimming scamin New York.

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Natasha Chilingerian

Natasha Chilingerian has been immersed in the credit union industry for over a decade. She first joined CU Times in 2011 as a freelance writer, and following a two-year hiatus from 2013-2015, during which time she served as a communications specialist for Xceed Financial Credit Union (now Kinecta Federal Credit Union), she re-joined the CU Times team full-time as managing editor. She was promoted to executive editor in 2019. In the earlier days of her career, Chilingerian focused on news and lifestyle journalism, serving as a writer and editor for numerous regional publications in Oregon, Louisiana, South Carolina and the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition, she holds experience in marketing copywriting for companies in the finance and technology space. At CU Times, she covers People and Community news, cybersecurity, fintech partnerships, marketing, workplace culture, leadership, DEI, branch strategies, digital banking and more. She currently works remotely and splits her time between Southern California and Portland, Ore.