A sharp-eyed Brookfield resident who noticed suspicious activity at an ATM machine in Riverside on Aug. 3 has led police to uncover what appears to be a local cell of a Russian organized crime ring that has been stealing personal information online from people around the world.
Valeriu Malcoci, 20, a citizen of the Republic of Moldova, was charged with altering or counterfeiting debit cards, which is a Class 3 felony. He appeared in bond court Wednesday morning after an extensive investigation by Riverside police and agents from the U.S. Secret Service.
Riverside police arrested Malcoci at about 8 p.m. on Aug. 3 in an alley behind the Bank of America at Harlem Avenue and East Burlington Street. Minutes earlier, a Brookfield man who works near the bank called police to report that a man wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt had gone back and forth several times from a vehicle to the ATM machine in the Bank of America parking lot.
When he was taken into custody, according to police, Malcoci was carrying more than $400 in cash and a total of 45 debit cards and gift cards from various businesses. In addition, police detained two Russian men who they found walking in the 300 block of East Burlington Street.
Police released the Russians without charges, but their cellphones were confiscated and police are working to obtain a search warrant to collect data from the phones. According to Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, the cellphones include photos that appear to have been taken in Florida and North Carolina and were taken in areas that depict banks.
Malcoci, who holds both Romanian and Moldovan passports, lives in a Skokie townhome with about 10 other people, said Weitzel. He is in the U.S. on a valid work visa and is employed by a moving company which pays for the townhome. Malcoci has only been in the Chicago area for three weeks, according to Weitzel. Previously he lived in Minneapolis and Montana.
Weitzel said that Malcoci was using gift cards from various retailers that had been essentially turned into debit cards by encoding them with user information and PIN numbers stolen from residents of Paris, France.
“The magnetic strip is the whole key,” said Weitzel. “The machine doesn’t know if it’s a gift card from Walmart or Starbucks, all it’s reading is the magnetic strip.”
Malcoci reportedly told police that the card information and stolen personal information was transmitted back and forth via the Internet, purportedly with a Russian organized crime gang.
The New York Times on Tuesday published a story about a Russian crime ring that has hacked into more than 400,000 websites worldwide to collect confidential information, including 1.2 billion username and password combinations. It’s unknown whether Malcoci is connected to that particular crime ring or another one.
Weitzel said that Malcoci was experienced enough to know that ATM machines can detect fraud and would space out his use of the ATM, letting legitimate customers use the machine to break up his pattern of using it.
Because none of the men arrested by Riverside police spoke English and because of the nature of the investigation, the department sought the help of the Secret Service, which sent three agents who could speak Russian and Moldovan to assist in the case.
The Secret Service is continuing to investigate the incident to see if there is a larger federal case that can be developed.