Suspects in ATM heists big spenders

Published: Saturday, May. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6A
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 12, 2013 - 3:08 pm

NEW YORK – Three worked as bus drivers for special-needs children, two worked at a Kmart, and another delivered pizza.

A majority had gone to high school together and, for the most part, seemed like just another group of men who did little to stand out in their working-class neighborhood in Yonkers, N.Y.

But around Christmas, something changed. They flaunted Rolex watches, drove new luxury cars and took off on trips to Miami, where they went on shopping sprees.

The eight young men, according to law enforcement officials, had just pulled off the first of two series of thefts that would ultimately rank among the biggest in New York City history, successful beyond their wildest hopes.

In all, they are accused of stealing $2.8 million. But, the authorities charge, they were just a small piece of a global crime ring that executed one of the most far-reaching and best-coordinated thefts of the Internet age, looting $45 million from ATMs around the world, using data stolen from prepaid debit card accounts, all in a matter of hours.

Despite the sophistication of the crime, the men from Yonkers seemed genuinely awe-struck by their good fortune, according to a law enforcement official involved in the investigation, and their eagerness to flash their profits helped lead to their arrest.

Alberto Yusi Lajud-Pena, who is believed to have been the leader of the crew, fled to the Dominican Republic and quickly bought a pickup as he started spending what apparently was his share of the take.

He was killed last month, the victim of a botched robbery devised by his in-laws, according to local law enforcement officials. And the splurges on luxury goods by other alleged crew members – many documented in photographs snapped on their cellphones – helped build a criminal case against them.

After the scope and details of the crime became public Thursday with the unsealing of an indictment, bank managers flooded the authorities with worried calls, and anyone with a bank card tucked in a wallet was left to wonder, in a world where millions of dollars can be moved with a keystroke, how safe his or her savings were.

But most of the suspected New York crew members seemed to be unaware of the dimensions of the crime, according to law enforcement officials and people who have spoken to the young men who have been charged.

"They probably couldn't even find the countries where this scheme was created" on a map, said Patrick Brackley, a lawyer representing Elvis Rafael Rodriguez, one of those charged.

Rodriguez, like the others, entered a not-guilty plea. But Brackley did not dispute that Rodriguez was one of the people shown in photographs posing with stacks of cash.

"That is the class of criminal you are dealing with," Brackley said, noting that whatever the skills required of the global operation, the New York participants were at the "very, very low, low end."

Investigators around the world are still working to identify members of the network, how it was organized and how its participants were recruited. In court documents, investigators point to email between Lajud and an organization in Russia known to be involved in money laundering.

They also cite a trip three of the men made to Bucharest, the Romanian capital, on Jan. 9, not long after the first $5 million was withdrawn from 4,500 ATMs on Dec. 21.

The plane tickets, according to court documents, were bought in cash after American Airlines canceled the original reservation, suspecting a stolen credit card was used to book the flight.

"We believe they were carrying a large amount of money with them," according to a law enforcement official who requested anonymity.

The Secret Service was alerted soon after the ATMs were drained in December.

The authorities seized bank surveillance video of the withdrawals by "cashing crews" in New York and elsewhere, leaving investigators thousands of hours of footage to review.

But after crews in about 24 countries struck again Feb. 19, stealing $40 million in more than 36,000 ATM transactions, the authorities in New York were able to start matching faces from the two series of thefts, the law enforcement official said.

The cashing crews largely targeted machines at big banks, rather than at delis or convenience stores, because they allow larger withdrawals, the official said.

In the December and February thefts, hackers obtained account information from bank card processing companies, then raised withdrawal limits. Crews then encoded the information on cards with magnetic strips and used them at the ATMs.

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