Financial crime: Surreal skill, profit in Cancun ATM skimming scheme


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ATM skimming got bolder and bolder; amassed hundreds of millions via financial crime

When a Cancun-based Romanian gang set its sights on a financial-crime operation using ATM skimmers,  they went all in.

In a fascinating long-form feature from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, reporters detail allegations against the Riviera Maya gang. What started as savvy ATM skimming in a tourist mecca turned into a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars operation with a global reach.

According to the reporting and criminal investigations, gang members allegedly initially used skimmers to steal bank information. But they would wait months to use the information, and they would use the fraudulent cards in other global locations. This tactic made tracking and stopping the source of the skimmers difficult. Victims of the ATM data theft struggled to link the illegal withdrawals occurring in far-flung locales to their Cancun vacations months earlier.

The OCCRP feature identifies members of a Romanian gang that allegedly set up extensive operations in Cancun. And as the skimming operations grew, members saw the potential in owning their own ATM machines.

Members purchased ATM machines from legitimate manufacturers, and then they loaded their own software in the machines. This allowed gang members to gather and store bank-account information from every user of the ATM.

As the operation grew in scale and boldness, the gang secured a branding deal with a prominent Mexican bank to include the bank’s logo on some of the data-skimming ATMs. At its peak, the group controlled approximately 100 ATMs in heavily touristed locations in Mexico.

One of the strategies to evade detection and scrutiny by authorities was to take a small amount of money from a high volume of bank accounts. A witness for the prosecution in a Romanian case against gang members said this tactic netted about $20 million per month.

Authorities estimate that the gang was able to net about $240 million in illicit withdrawals each year of full operation.

To launder the profits, gang leaders allegedly set up front companies and invested funds in Mexican real estate and tourist properties.

A security expert and former Washington Post reporter investigated a tip in 2015 about bluetooth skimming of ATM machines in Mexico, and he published extensive reporting on this ATM fraud. But authorities didn’t act at the time.

Gang violence drew the attention of Mexican authorities in 2019, and authorities in both Mexico and Romania are advancing investigations and charges.

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