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Secret Service joins probe into Sierra Madre credit card fraud

Losses top $82,000 as detectives identify at least 282 victims defrauded at a now closed gas station in Sierra Madre. Police are looking for the owner and a man who allegedly used a cloned credit card at a Montebello bank.

January 08, 2011|By Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • EVG Quality Gas in Sierra Madre closed shortly after Christmas. Police are seeking to question station owner Evgeny K. Yakimenko.
EVG Quality Gas in Sierra Madre closed shortly after Christmas. Police… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Detectives have identified at least 282 victims of credit card fraud at a Sierra Madre gas station and are working to find the business' owner and a man photographed allegedly using a cloned card at a Montebello bank.

With losses now topping $82,000 and the investigation extending to a second gas station in the city, Sierra Madre Mayor Joe Mosca said the U.S. Secret Service, which specializes in card fraud scams, is joining the probe.

"The nature of this crime and the number of people it has affected is highly unusual in Sierra Madre," Mosca said.

Police said 75% of the victims are residents of the foothill community who used credit or debit cards since July at EVG Quality Gas, 50 S. Baldwin Ave.

Investigators are seeking to question station owner Evgeny K. Yakimenko, who has not been seen since the station closed shortly after Christmas, said Sierra Madre Police Chief Marilyn Diaz.

"He is a person of interest," she said.

Diaz said little is known about Yakimenko, who acquired the station early last year from a man who owns another gas station in the community. Police also are looking for two other people connected to the station.

Diaz said the credit and debit cards were skimmed using an electronic device that snags account information. In some cases, the victim's card information was used to charge purchases; in other instances, cloned cards were created to make retail purchases elsewhere or withdraw money from bank accounts.

"The cards were used in the days after Christmas when people aren't paying as much attention to their bills," Diaz said.

The first identity theft case was reported to police Dec. 27. The number of cases has grown steadily since then.

"There were so many people at the police station, it was like an open house," said resident Sue Levoe, 54, whose family credit card was charged for about $180 on Dec. 29, about four weeks after her husband bought gas at the station.

"Everyone in Sierra Madre knows someone who is a victim," Levoe said of the town, which has a population of fewer than 11,000. She said she recalls driving past the station in late December with an out-of-town friend who remarked on how cheap the gas was there.

Police said six of the cases involved six transactions each, and one involved nine transactions. The highest loss from an individual case was $3,782, Diaz said.

Under federal law, a cardholder is not responsible for fraudulent losses beyond $50 per card and not liable for any losses if the theft occurs after a problem is reported. But the financial institutions that issued the cards are still losing the money.

Police are looking at whether the fraud extended to a Valero gas station in the city, where a small number of people reported using cards at that station and seeing bills from EVG.

richard.winton@latimes.com

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