The Secret Service is involved in the investigation, and both men will likely be facing local and federal charges.
The suspects were identified as Odemnis Prats Leive, 30, and Amaurys Mendez, 39, both of whom are allegedly illegal aliens from Cuba, and both have Miami, Fla., addresses.
Rogersville Police Department Assistant Chief Travis Fields said his agency seized more than $16,000 in cash and about $4,000 worth of gift cards and merchandise after conducting a traffic stop as the duo pulled out of the Rogersville Walmart parking lot Thursday evening.
The victims’ data was apparently collected from a gas station in Kingsport.
“They’re putting these skimmers on the machines customers run their credit card or debit card through when you pay for gas at the pump,” Fields told the Times-News Friday. “Then they’re either coming back at a later time and retrieving them, or it’s transmitted through Bluetooth. So when you pay with a debit card or a credit card, they’re getting all that information.”
Fields added, “They had a laptop and a card maker, and they’re literally making cards with their names on them, but with your banking information on them. Then they go to Walmarts all over, buying stuff and getting cash back. When your bank figures it out and shuts down your card, they just move on to the next one.”
Around 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Fields received a call from a Kingsport branch of Eastman Credit Union informing him that ECU had been hit by a credit card fraud to the tune of more than $20,000 over the past two days.
The ECU employee told Fields that one of the fraudulent credit cards had been used at the Rogersville Walmart about an hour earlier, and there was video of the transaction.
Fields then contacted Walmart loss prevention officers, gave them the information about the transaction, and Walmart was able to retrieve the surveillance video.
“While we were doing that they (Walmart) called back and said he (one of the suspects) is still here in the store,” Fields said. “Two officers and I went that way and covered all the parking lot exits. The loss prevention officer called and said they’re leaving at the top entrance, and basically I just met them head-on at the Route 66 parking lot entrance, and we took them into custody right there.”
Leive and Mendez were using a rented car from North Carolina.
They are suspected of being members of a large Cuban syndicate, which has been pulling credit/debit card scams across the Southeast.
Recently the group has been hitting Northeast Tennessee, and in addition to Kingsport and Bristol, there have been reports of similar thefts in Greene County.
“They bought luggage, but mostly what they’re doing is buying things like toothpaste or razors and then getting the maximum amount of cash back with each purchase,” Fields said. “They also had a large quantity of gift cards that they had purchased with these bootlegged debit cards. We were able to recover their bootlegged cards and some of their equipment.”
The Secret Service has a task force investigating the syndicate, and agents arrived in Rogersville Thursday evening.
Fields said the scam might be new to our area, but it has been happening in other parts of the country.
They best way to avoid being victimized is to make sure the machine you run your credit card through hasn’t been tampered with.
Businesses also need to be alert to make sure that their equipment hasn’t been compromised, Fields said. ATM machines and gas pump card readers are the easiest targets.
“Take the time to look at that machine you’re going to put your card in,” Fields said. “Basically they put their device over top of the store’s device. You can take just a second to pull on it to make sure it doesn’t pull off. Or, if you look you can see a space in the back part of it. It doesn’t look right. Inspect it before you put your card in it.”
Leive is charged with 26 counts of credit card fraud, 26 counts of theft by criminal simulation and identify theft.
Mendez is charged with 24 counts of credit card fraud and 24 counts of theft by criminal simulation.
Both are being held in the Hawkins County Jail with no bond and will be arraigned Monday in Sessions Court.