A Romanian citizen was sentenced to jail for ATM skimming thefts targeting low-income Southern Californians.
Virgil Toader Negru, 40, was found guilty of one count of felony identity theft and one count of forgery related to card skimming government fraud schemes. He faces 240 days in jail and two years of felony probation, according to the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.
On April 1, 2023, Negru was seen “engaging in suspicious activity at two ATM sites in Simi Valley” by authorities investigating Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card skimming fraud.
EBT cards allow participants to pay for food using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. Employment Development Department (EDD) cards are used for distributing state funds such as unemployment, disability insurance, and paid family leave.
Negru was found in possession of 12 gift cards that were cloned into EBT and EDD cards. Negru attempted to use the cloned cards to withdraw money from EBT/EDD recipients, authorities said.
Since March 2023, Negru and seven other Romanian suspects have been arrested for skimming crimes tied to Ventura County. Five of the suspects have been linked to each other and are believed to have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars in EBT CalWORKs money.
Two of the suspects are at large, authorities said. Marius Vlaic, 23, and Roman Janecek, 29, were both charged with more than a dozen felony counts, including conspiracy and grand theft, all related to CalWORKs theft using cloned EBT cards.
Vlaic and Janecek both posted $50,000 bail in April and allegedly violated bail terms by cutting off their GPS ankle monitors. The two men remain at large and have felony warrants out for their arrest, authorities said.
According to the California Department of Social Services, between January through June 2023, over $523,000 was fraudulently withdrawn from Ventura County ATMs. Thieves made 1,095 EBT withdrawals during that period, swiping up to 30 times per ATM.
In 2022, officials said California lost more than $60 million in CalWORKs theft.
In March 2023, 15 suspects, many of whom authorities say are Romanian nationals, were arrested for stealing over $38.9 million of funds disbursed through CalWORKs and CalFresh programs in L.A.
In April 2023, 13 people were arrested for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from EBT accounts in the Van Nuys area. Those suspects were also believed to be part of a Romanian syndicate.
Authorities say EBT cards are easily cloned because they lack modern security features. Typically, thieves will duplicate the card’s magnetic strip information using ATM skimmers.
Pinhole cameras hidden in labels, false frames, or mounted above the ATM can also capture victims typing in their PIN which is matched with the card’s skimmed information. With those two items, any card with a magnetic strip can be cloned into an EBT card, officials said. Gift cards and hotel room key cards are commonly used among thieves, officials said.
A similar scam can also happen at point-of-sale machines using an overlay that looks identical to the machine.
“The skimming devices are often undetectable,” authorities said. “Even if you have your EBT card, someone could have a copy.”
The best way to protect your EBT/EDD card from being skimmed:
-Change your PIN the night before your deposit day every month. If they do not have your new PIN, they cannot use their cloned card.
-Always cover the keypad while entering your PIN so a camera cannot see it.
-Lightly tug on the point-of-sale machine trim before making a transaction. If it lifts off, it is a skimming overlay.
-Use direct deposit. CalWORKs will deposit directly into your bank account.
“In merely six months this year, more than half a million dollars in government benefits was drained illegally from Ventura County ATMs,” said District Attorney Erik Nasarenko. “But through aggressive prosecution and coordinative investigative efforts, we are identifying suspects, alerting consumers and business about ways to protect themselves and disrupting skimming networks operating in the county.”