Eight people have been arrested and another is being sought on suspicion of stealing more than $1 million by "skimming" account information from the debit cards of dozens of customers at three Southern California restaurants, federal authorities said Wednesday.
Kresimir Matuzovic, 28, and Nour-Eddine Messaghrou, 27, both of Brentwood, are suspected of being the masterminds behind the identity theft ring, authorities said.
The elaborate scheme targeted about 114 customers of Cafe Verona in Los Angeles, T.G.I. Friday's in Ladera Heights and the Cheesecake Factory in Thousand Oaks.
"It was very sophisticated," Assistant U.S. Atty. Jennifer Waier said of the ATM theft operation. "It's something that we haven't seen before."
According to the indictment, restaurant employees used special "skimming devices" to steal account information from patrons' Wells Fargo and Washington Mutual debit cards. The employees reportedly passed the information to the two alleged ringleaders in exchange for about $200 per card skimmed.
Matuzovic and Messaghrou then "re-stripped" their own cards with the stolen information, requested new PIN numbers and accessed the patrons' accounts, authorities said. The suspects allegedly withdrew money from the accounts, deposited counterfeit checks and bought postal money orders with the cards.
Bank officials brought the case to the Internal Revenue Service's attention, said Patrick Caruth, spokesman for the Los Angeles field office of the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS.
"Without the assistance of the bank investigators from Washington Mutual and Wells Fargo, it would have been a very difficult case to actually unravel," Caruth said.
Also arrested Monday in connection with the case were Zhaklin Babakhanyan, 25, of Glendale; Darr Bryan, 21, of Los Angeles; Juan Deleon, 25, of Newbury Park; Vanessa Goicoechea, 23, of Canoga Park; Kante Kangni, 25, of Inglewood; and Toilin Kelly, 25, of Los Angeles. A ninth suspect, Yacine El Bouri, 23, of Brentwood, is still being sought.
In addition, federal agents Monday seized more than $92,620 in postal money orders, about $270,000 in cash and a late-model Lamborghini sports car from Matuzovic and Messaghrou's home, authorities said.
All nine defendants were charged with "access device" fraud and bank fraud. The two charges carry up to 15 and 30 years in prison, respectively, according to the U.S. attorney's office in L.A. Matuzovic and Messaghrou were also charged with four counts of mail fraud, and at least seven defendants were charged with money laundering.