Gang admits scamming ‘vulnerable’ local banks

| 16/03/2016 | 0 Comments

Cayman News Service(CNS): A gang of five people who came to the Cayman Islands to steal money from ATMs with skimmed cards targeted the jurisdiction because of the vulnerability of the local banks, prosecutors said Tuesday. They said that this type of crime is decreasing in the US and across Europe because of new technology that can beat the scammers but Cayman banks are still at risk. Almost unheard of here a few years ago, the crime is becoming increasingly common and this is the third case of its kind cracked by police and the second involving Romanians.

The group of four men and one woman were arrested in November after making what the crown said were more than 300 attempts to draw cash from Cayman National Bank and Butterfield Bank machines from credit card and bank accounts held in other jurisdictions, using gift cards cloned using stolen identities and account details of numerous victims. Despite the significant number of attempts, the gang took small amounts from the accounts relating to the cards that they managed to successfully clone, and as a result their cash haul was around CI$16,000.

The members of the gang pleaded guilty to a list of charges relating to the scam but they all pointed the finger at each other when they appeared in court yesterday for a sentencing hearing as they sought to minimise their individual parts in what prosecutors called a sophisticated and organised crime in which they all played key roles.

The gang was made up of three Romanian nationals, a British man and an American woman. Outlining the details of the offence, which happened just four months ago, crown counsel Toyin Salako said that Nytia Bradley from New York was the first person to arrive in Cayman on 30 October. Her luggage was the subject of a random search when she landed and she was not carrying any of the equipment used in the crime. However, it was through Bradley’s phone that the gang received instructions via Whatsapp messages from a man called ‘Mr Bean’, who is suspected to be the gang leader and based in London.

Bradley checked into Treasure Island and met up with the second arrival, Ayoubi Cheaaibi, who had come from London on a UK passport and cleared customs and immigration without any random checks. Iunot Petcu, Marius Bud-Popa and Ovidu Dobrea all arrived on 31 October from Jamaica via the Dominican Republic.

The gang then set about withdrawing cash. Despite many unsuccessful attempts, they were able to use the cards to withdraw some cash but because they arrived at a time when the banks were struggling with US currency due to the money transfer crisis, they were withdrawing only local dollars. As a result, the crown said, they used the Cayman currency to buy jewellery.

Although the total cash stolen is believed to be about CI$16,000, Salako said the foiled attempts would have produced more than $120,000 and if they had not been caught, they would have gone on to steal more. She said that Cayman was being targeted deliberately because weaknesses in the banking system had not been addressed here as they had been in other jurisdictions, where the crimes were rife a few years ago before the banks adapted their machines.

Salako explained that they were caught after some CNB cash machines retained the cloned cards, which were not working, and seeing they were skimmed gift cards, bank staff checked the CCTV. In a significant and helpful coincidence, one of the bank employees happened to spot Brady and Cheaaibi on the street, followed them to a jewellery store and alerted the authorities. The gang was then rounded up and arrested and their skimming equipment, laptops, phones and dozens of cards were seized.

All five confessed immediately but all minimised their involvement.

Bradly claimed she was merely here on vacation and met Cheaabi at Treasure Island, after which he moved into her room. She said she was then sucked into the scam and her phone was used by the Romanians to contact Mr Bean. Cheaabi claimed he was recruited by Romains in London because he owed them money and was told he could either go to Cayman with the cloned cards or sell drugs. He pointed the finger at the Romanians as the organisers of the crime and Petcu as the gang leader.

However, all three Romanians said they were just foot soldiers, forced to come to Cayman by loan sharks after they were unable to pay debts because of massive interest. They all said they feared for their lives and families after falling victim to the moneylenders, who had threatened and beaten up two of the defendants. The three all said that Bradley, whom they called “the American lady”, was their contact and she and Cheaabi gave them all the directions on what to draw out where and when.

The judge presiding over the case heard submissions from the defence, arguing that the crime was not as sophisticated or as well planned as a similar case involving another gang of five with direct Romanian connections in 2014. They said far less cash was taken, their trip was shorter and none of them were the gang leaders. They also argued that the judge should consider each offender individually and not hand down blanket sentences because each offender played a different role.

Acting Grand Court judge, Justice Alastair Malcolm, said he would deliver his sentencing ruling on Friday. Salako also requested a hearing for the crown to retain the cash seized from the gang’s hotel rooms and for a deportation order after they have served their sentences.

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