Scott Gordon, NBCDFW.com
Police say identity thieves used electronic "skimmers" to steal debit-card information at gas stations in 10 to 15 North Texas cities
Thousands of unsuspecting drivers had their debit card numbers stolen in an elaborate scheme involving electronic "skimmers" hidden inside gas pumps, police said.
The thieves cloned the cards and went to ATMs to cash in, said Euless police Detective John Haecker, who spent months helping the U.S. Secret Service investigate the large-scale identify thefts.
"It was very high-tech," Haecker said. "You wouldn't even notice there was anything wrong with the pump."
The scam continued for months at gas stations in 10 to 15 North Texas cities until investigators were able to identify the suspects, he said.
"It involved thousands of victims spread all over North Texas," Haecker said.
In a deal with federal prosecutors, the alleged ringleader, Aleksandr Goukasian, pleaded guilty last week to a charge of using an unauthorized access device. He faces up to 10 years in prison.
Goukasian, 51, a native of Armenia, flew to North Texas from Los Angeles to carry out the crime, authorities said. It was unclear why he chose this area.
At least two other suspects have been identified but not arrested, Haecker said.
Goukasian had a universal key that allowed him to open a common type of gas pump and install the devices when stores were closed or clerks weren't watching, police said. The gadgets, encased in Tupperware and including a wireless transmitter, recorded card numbers and even personal identification numbers.
"It was a large amount of money," Haecker said. "I don't even know what ballpark it would be in. It's hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Goukasian also was charged with identity theft, a first-degree felony, in Tarrant County District Court. He faces an additional 99 years in prison if convicted on the state charges.
A sentencing date in the federal case has not yet been set.
Detectives are tight-lipped about how the cracked the case, saying they want to keep their secrets to catch the next group of high-tech thieves.
"We don't want to say how we caught them, but we have our ways," Haecker said.