GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Kent County Metropolitan Fraud and Identity Theft Team says it has arrested five people in connection to incidents of “skimming” at West Michigan gas stations.
The suspects — Yunier Cudello-Albelo, 29; Yaimari Gonzalez-Santos, 36; Elisabe Hernandez-Perez, 43; Maria Sanchez-Figueredo, 17; and Juan Antonio Ledesma, 23 — each face charges of possession of an automated sales suppression device (a “skimmer”) and conducting a criminal enterprise.
The five suspects, all of whom have ties to Miami, Florida, were arraigned on Friday and are each being held on a $1 million cash or surety bond. One of them is also wanted on an outstanding warrant out of Colorado for identity theft, though a Tuesday release did not specify which.
Target 8 went through Florida criminal records and found Ledesma has been in trouble with the law since he was 13. In February 2005, Ledesma was charged with possession of a weapon/firearm on school property. He pleaded not guilty and was sent to a diversion program. Two years later, as a juvenile he pleaded guilty to burglary. In 2009, he was arrested and charged with two counts of armed robbery and was sentenced to prison as an adult. He was just released from prison last summer.
Target 8 did not find any past criminal records for the other four suspects.
Possession of a skimmer is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison an a $100,000 fine, according to a Tuesday release from the Grand Rapids Police Department. Conducting a criminal enterprise is a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and/or a $100,000 fine.
Skimmers are devices placed inside gas station pumps that can steal customers’ credit or debit card information. Because they are inside the machines, customers can’t see them when they pay at the pump.
The skimmers have been recently discovered at gas stations in unincorporated Belmont north of Grand Rapids, Byron Township, Grand Rapids, Dowagiac in Cass County and in Shiawassee County. It’s not yet clear how many of those incidents are linked to the five suspects, if any.
COURT DOCUMENTS OUTLINE INVESTIGATION
According to court documents, detectives got a break in the case when they learned that the five suspects were staying at a Comfort Suites hotel in Grandville and staked the place out.
On Sept. 2, they followed the suspects to the Meijer on 16th Street in Holland. There, detectives say, the suspects purchased several thousand dollars’ worth of prepaid debit cards using cloned credit cards. Detectives found several of the cloned credit cards in the trash nearby.
Investigators then searched two vehicles and two hotel rooms where the suspects were staying. According to the court documents, detectives found a credit card skimmer in one of the rooms, as well as several cloned credit cards, multiple debit gift cards, computers and thumb drives.
Since the skimmer linked to the suspects was found in the hotel room, it’s unclear if or precisely where it may have been used.
The Ionia County sheriff told 24 Hour News 8 that authorities believe the case may be connected to as many as 20 fraud complaints linked to customers of a gas station in that county.
One Ionia County victim said Tuesday night that she was relieved to hear of the arrests, which she learned about by watching 24 Hour News 8.
“It was like, kind of excited. ‘Cause you know what, I get up every morning to go to work and then here they’re just taking people’s money, thousands of dollars at a time,” Jane Blood said.
Blood had her debit card information stolen after filling up her tank at an Admiral gas station in Ionia. No skimmers were found at the gas station, but the MO was similar to the Kent County cases.
“I would have been … worried that they were still out there doing it. But at least they got five people and who’s to say there might be more,” Blood said.
Investigators are still trying to determine if there are any other suspects who may be involved in the scheme.
HOW SKIMMERS WORK AND HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Skimmers are often placed at pumps farthest from the station, where workers wouldn’t be able to see someone tampering with the pump. Gas stations that close at night are also often targeted. And it’s not difficult to get into the pumps — keys that open them are easy to get.
Some of the devices operate on Bluetooth and send information to nearby crooks, while others store the data and have to be collected. Once crooks have your card numbers, they can be used to make purchases.
If you think your card had been compromised, you should call your local police department or the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s Weights and Measures section at 517.655.8202.