Trio jailed for role in atm gift cards scam
Three Romanians were sentenced to three years in jail yesterday for withdrawing more than HK$1.5 million from Hong Kong banks by fooling their automated cash machines with doctored British gift cards.
Police are investigating an international syndicate believed to be behind the trio, who encoded the gift cards with bank account details stolen from Europeans, mostly Britons. In effect they turned the gift cards, issued by British stores, into fake ATM cards, police said.
The court heard that construction workers Ionut Leonard Oancea, 30, Petrica Ghinea, 24, Alin Ciumpuliac, 22, and a fourth, unknown, man who is still at large, made 1,100 attempts to withdraw money at six automatic teller machines in Hong Kong between January 22 and 25 this year.
They hit Citibank, HSBC, DBS bank and the Bank of Communication in Wan Chai and Mong Kok.
On the 628 occasions they were successful, they withdrew a total of HK$1.56 million. If they had succeeded every time, they would have made of with HK$2.7 million.
Sentencing the trio, District Judge Garry Tallentire said the case had international dimensions.
'It was a well-organised, well-planned and well-executed scheme,' he said.
The three men, who each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to steal, had been working as construction workers in Spain. They came to Hong Kong to celebrate Oancea's upcoming marriage.
The court heard that the cards could be inserted into cash machines to withdraw money and could be used repeatedly.
A police officer said 119 gift cards were seized. 'The front of the gift cards [has information from] companies, say a department store. But it is very easy to encode other data into the magnetic strip on the back,' he said.
The trio did not reveal how they obtained the cards or the banking information, the officer said. But he said conmen could have stolen the banking information from unsuspecting victims while they conducted ordinary banking transactions.
The fourth man, a Romanian whose name is not known, is believed to have left Hong Kong.
Police said he could be one of the masterminds since he was not involved in any of the attempts to withdraw cash, but just monitored the other men.
The three were arrested after security camera images and records at DBS and HSBC linked them and the fourth man to the withdrawal attempts, the court heard.
Police arrested the three at King's Hotel in Wan Chai. In their hotel room officers found 29 gift cards, and Hong Kong dollars and euros totalling HK$2.2 million.
The judge initially considered a sentence of five years, but reduced it to three to take into account the men's low level of education, the fact they were not behind the scam, and that the money retrieved would cover the victims' losses.
Hong Kong police seized 2,956 fake ATM cards from January to September in four operations leading to arrests, up from 560 cards in the same period last year.