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Credit Card Thefts at Gyms May Be Part of a Ring

Fraud: Federal agents are looking into the incidents at health clubs in Ventura County, which fit a pattern seen around the nation.

September 30, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Credit card thefts at Ventura County health clubs in the last year are being investigated by federal authorities for a possible link to a larger fraud ring targeting gyms nationwide, officials said this week.

"This has been going on for a long time," said Capt. Frank O'Hanlon, who heads the Sheriff Department's East County Major Crimes Unit. "Don't bring your valuables to the club. Don't leave them in the car. Go with the basic minimum of a driver's license and maybe $5 for some juice."

O'Hanlon said the investigation into the local thefts is being handled by federal agents.

Health clubs are easy targets for professional thieves, O'Hanlon said. Many members work out before or after work, so chances are good they will have cash, credit cards and jewelry with them.

Typically, a thief will steal a credit card from a locker by tripping the latch on the locker door much like opening a car lock, O'Hanlon said.

In previous cases, the credit card numbers stolen from clubs are e-mailed to accomplices on the East Coast.

The numbers are punched into stolen blank credit cards. A transaction is attempted at an automated teller machine to make sure the card is active. Then the number is forwarded to a Las Vegas casino where a larger transaction is attempted.

Last year, Ventura County sheriff's detectives arrested two West Hollywood men in connection with a burglary ring targeting several east county health clubs. They were released on bail but remain the subject of a federal probe because the alleged thefts involved interstate transactions, officials said.

No evidence, however, has linked the two men to the current wave of thefts, O'Hanlon said.

He said some health club officials have been less than fully cooperative in the probe out of a fear that a negative public perception would lead to a drop in memberships.

Alan Matevosian said he is convinced that two of his credit card numbers were stolen from his wallet while he worked out Sept. 11 at a Thousand Oaks gym.

"I locked up my locker and everything was where I put it," he said. "That evening, I put the wallet in my pocket and a credit card company's fraud department called to ask me if I had I tried to transfer $2,000 in Las Vegas. I told them no."

Luckily for Matevosian, his credit card company didn't honor the order and he canceled his credit cards. But others aren't so lucky, authorities said.

Officials at several Thousand Oaks health clubs said members have filed reports of thefts from their lockers or cars.

In response, clubs have posted signs at entrances, increased security patrols in the surrounding parking lots and encouraged members to leave wallets and purses at home.

At the Spectrum Club Thousand Oaks, spokeswoman Jana Wahlstrom said officials are aware of the recent thefts and have increased the monitoring of security cameras at the gym. They also require photo identification for entry.

At Body Focus Health Spa in Thousand Oaks, general manager Glenda Zittell said, "We have made every attempt to educate members. We will go out in the parking lot and if we see a purse in a car, we will page the member.

"But health clubs aren't the lone rangers here," she said. "It's anywhere you park your car in Thousand Oaks."

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