$700,000 Stolen in Credit-Card Fraud

Moscow investigators have arrested three individuals who they claim stole $700,000 from bank accounts in what officials believe to be the biggest credit-card fraud ever perpetrated in Russia.

The criminals used a scanning device and a miniature video camera on 15 automatic teller machines along the Garden Ring to steal data from credit cards. They then forged cards and withdrew cash from ATMs around the city, Irina Volk, a spokeswoman for the city police's economic crime department, said Tuesday. Two hundred people were victimized in the scam.

Police began looking into the case in January after receiving several complaints from holders of credit cards issued by Russian banks, Volk said. The victims said amounts of $2,000 to $3,000 had disappeared from their accounts without their authorization. After scanning bank documents of fraudulent transactions, police identified the ATMs where illegal withdrawals had taken place.

Authorities then placed those ATMs under round-the-clock surveillance. They soon noticed a young man who returned to the same machine several times a day to remove large sums.

Last Tuesday, police arrested Alexei Menshov, 23, a student at the Moscow Automobile Institute. Menshov quickly confessed and fingered his two accomplices, who he said had provided him with the forged cards.

Yury Kazakov, 31, who holds a Ph.D. in a technical science, and Sergei Levitsky, 34, an economics graduate, were arrested Monday at the rented apartment where, police say, they stored the machine that produced the forged cards. "They said they designed the scanning device and thought, 'Why not use it and earn some money,'" Volk said.

This is not Moscow's first brush with large-scale ATM fraud. In late 1999, some 280 bank cards were compromised after being used at Moscow ATMs. The system, called skimming, relied on an electronic gadget rigged into teller machines. The device read the PIN code and banking information that is stored on a card's magnetic strip.

Perpetrators then withdrew money from victims' accounts in locales as diverse as Munich, Smolensk and Tel Aviv. Authorities eventually made arrests in London, Munich, Paris and Stockholm.

Volk said police believe that the machine used to make counterfeit cards in this current case was imported and could cost a significant sum of money. And she hinted that there could be further arrests. "Investigators suspect that some organized criminal group may be involved in fraud of such a scale," she said.

For now, the three suspects have been charged with fraud and could face up to 10 years in prison.