TYLER, TX (KLTV) - Five people have been arrested after a months-long multiagency investigation into a credit card fraud and identity theft ring. More arrests are expected.
During a Friday afternoon press conference, officials discussed the investigation. Tyler police say thousands of East Texans have been victimized for millions of dollars.
"This is not something you as a customer or consumer are going to locate," one official said of the devices.
Authorities say the devices are internal skimmers that are installed inside the gas pumps. More than a dozen gas stations in Tyler, and another dozen in other parts of Smith County, have pumps that contained skimmers.
The devices are so advanced that some of them, once installed, can send a text message to the skimmer about a new card being used.
Those in custody include Emilio Francisco Alvarez, Hilda Perez de la Guardia, Eligio Diegez-Arias, Nolberto Neranjo Rivera and Yamiel Alvarez-Guerra. All of them were captured in Houston, with tens of thousands of card numbers at their disposal. Those wanted include Jorge Rodon-Martinez and Leidy Labrada DeGuardia. All of them, according to Tyler police, are of Cuban decent.
Back in April, Tyler Police Department and Smith County Sheriff's Office began receiving reports that residents were experiencing identity theft. What followed involved months of investigation.
Officials say the groups appear to be organized cells that have been found in multiple cities.
Tyler Police Department, Smith County Sheriff's Office, the Secret Service, Bullard Police Department, Houston Police Department, ICE and Homeland Security are all involved in the large-scale ongoing investigation.
The accused skimmers aren't just stealing from individuals. Maddox Air Conditioning in Tyler was hit for almost $30,000, just from one employee's card. He was going to the same station, on a regular basis for fuel.
It was the at the same fuel pump he went to all the time, same gas station," said. "This happened in the first of May, and when Tyler PD did come out, they told us that the station was one that they operated a sting with."
Law enforcement officials say there's no way to guarantee your card won't be skimmed, short of always paying inside the gas station, or with cash.
"I could go out to a pump right now, inspect it, and then tomorrow there could be a skimmer in there," Sgt. Adam Colby, with Tyler PD, said.
The devices can be installed in less than five minutes, often in broad daylight.
Sgt. Jeff Roberts with Tyler PD suggests that consumers pay close attention when they fill up their tank. Look for security tape that may have been cut, or pulled back. Also, look for locks that are specific to that pump, and don't look like they accept a generic key.
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert released a statement on the investigation commending the work of the agencies involved.
"Over the past few months, the Tyler Police Department, Smith County Sherriff's Office, and the U.S. Secret Service have extensively investigated a sophisticated criminal enterprise in east Texas. The dedication and team work of all three agencies has paid off, as several suspects have been apprehended."
"As this case unfolded in early April of this year, it became clear that this was an incredibly complex and paramount case. Numerous criminal groups are working in east Texas, but this investigation involved one of the largest of these groups. The expertise and experience of the officers working this investigation was critical to identifying this criminal ring as a threat to public safety. We are so fortunate to have these brave men and women in our community, and we are grateful that they have risked their lives to honor their oath to 'protect and serve.'"
"The ability of law enforcement agencies at all levels – from local to federal – to seamlessly coordinate was critical to the success of this operation. It's an honor to be the federal servant of such an incredible group of public protectors. We owe them an unpayable debt of thanks. A special word of thanks is extended to the Bullard Police Department and the Secret Service Financial Crimes Task Force based out of Houston, for their valuable support in this case. In addition, we are grateful for the cooperation of local banks, particularly Southside Bank and Austin Bank, who played such a key role in this investigation."
"These officers and citizens make me so proud to be an east Texan, and every person who helped in this effort is to be commended for their efforts. These arrests are a strong start to the fight against credit card skimming and fraud scams targeting hard working Americans . No one should have to fear criminals stealing their personal information while doing simple tasks like buying gasoline or groceries. I know these law enforcement communities will continue to keep up the extraordinary work, and so thank you to our law enforcement for a job well done."
Another victim in these crimes is the financial institution connected to your card. While a person or business may get fraudulent charges wiped away once they're discovered, the bank may be out for the stolen amount. Police and banks suggest that you set up your account to get a notification of every purchase, so if you are a victim, you'll know immediately.