Two Romanian Nationals who siphoned at least $100,000 from the bank accounts of Tri-Citians have been sentenced to federal prison.
The February 2019 theft by several ATM bandits was considered by authorities to be one of the largest skimming operations ever in the area.
Ciprian Simion, 35, and Gabriel Tigmarau, 51, eventually were caught in Oregon, where federal investigators say they stole at least 354 bank account numbers.
Their recent convictions in U.S. District Court for the Oregon District did not include the Mid-Columbia portion of their bank fraud scheme.
Simion – described as “an experienced credit card skimmer” – was sentenced to four years in prison, to be followed by five years of supervised release. He also has pending charges for similar crimes in New York.
Tigmarau is doing 3 1/2 years, with the same supervision time after he gets out of federal prison.
News releases from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland and Homeland Security Investigations both say the pair’s “precise movements in the months” leading up to the April 2019 arrests are unknown.
However, Pasco police announced the capture of the card skimmers at the time with a Facebook post, saying Detective Julie Lee “was able to network with several other detectives nationwide to develop info on who these people were and what routes they were traveling.”
The post two years ago said the investigation had been handed over to federal authorities.
Tri-Cities ATM thefts
The first reports about the bandits in the Tri-Cities surfaced around Feb. 13, 2019, when the man in the green jacket and knit cap took out money from HAPO ATMs using information stolen from accounts.
In the car with him was a man wearing a dark jacket and a scarf across his face. That man was caught in other images at ATMs, appearing to wear fake glasses and a fake nose.
During the following week, the number of victims in Kennewick, Richland and Pasco quickly grew from 25 to more than 200.
“In the meantime, other felonious ne’er-do-wells are out there, doing the same thing,” Pasco police posted at the time. “Be cautious when using your debit card on a strange ATM or scanner.”
Bank card skimming involves the illegal installation of devices on ATMs, point-of-sale (POS) terminals and fuel pumps to capture the bank account information or PINs of cardholders.
The thieves use that stolen data to create fake debit cards and credit cards to then get money out of victims’ accounts.
“It is estimated that skimming costs financial institutions and consumers more than $1 billion each year,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“Consumers are encouraged to look carefully at ATMs and POS terminals before using them,” the release continues. “If you observe evidence of tampering or anything unusual, do not use the machine” and contact the financial institution immediately.
Oregon ATM arrest
Federal officials say Simion initially was arrested in New York City in April 2018 after using fake ATM cards and PINs to withdraw cash from an ATM.
A search of his hotel room turned up nearly 100 forged debit cards and three forgery devices. He was indicted in New York state on more than 200 counts related to the fraud activity.
At some point later that year, Simion moved across the country to the Pacific Northwest.
Simion and Tigmarau installed a credit card skimmer in March 2019 at a Rivermark Community Credit Union ATM in Newberg, Ore. The two later removed the device to access account information, damaging the ATM in the process, according to the federal court documents.
They installed skimming devices on other area ATMs around the same time, and used the card numbers to withdraw cash.
Simion and Tigmarau were arrested April 27 by Portland police while tampering with an ATM at an IBEW Credit Union. The two had visited that same ATM a number of times over several weeks.
They had dozens of counterfeit bank cards and a skimming device on them and hidden in their car, including inside empty cigarette packs and behind a console panel.
Both men pleaded guilty in Oregon federal court in 2020 to one count each of bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.