Crime & Courts

Is a Romanian gang behind a $33,000 ATM theft, skimmers found at other banks?

A woman accused of using a card skimmer to steal nearly $33,000 from people who used a Columbia ATM has been charged, and law enforcement continues to urge residents to do a quick check at ATMs after skimmers were found on machines at three area banks recently.

Denisa Bonculesco, 27, was charged by Richland County investigators with financial transaction card forgery, according to the Sheriff’s Department. Investigators say Bonculesco placed a skimmer over the card reader of an ATM at First Citizens Bank on Rosewood Drive last June, and that she stole more than $32,000 from people who swiped their cards at the machine and, unknowingly, gave Bonculesco their financial information.

Skimmers are plastic devices that are placed over the card readers of ATMs. When customers insert their cards to use the ATM, the skimmer records information on the card’s magnetic stripe, including the account number, and stores it. The thief later retrieves the skimmer and can access and use the card information.

A small panel that the thief affixes to an ATM also has a tiny camera on it that allows the thief to see what each person’s PIN is.

Sheriff Leon Lott said Tuesday that Bonculesco is part of a gang from Romania that makes a living in the United States by begging and stealing.

“When they come to America, they’re taught two things very quickly,” he said. “They teach them how to beg ... and they teach them how to put these skimmers on ATMs. They travel across the United States and that’s what they do. They’re stealing thousands of dollars of our money, living off of it and having a good time.”

News of Bonculesco’s arrest came just hours after an employee at a bank on Decker Boulevard found the third skimmer in three days at Columbia-area banks, Lott said. Two men each found a skimmer Saturday morning at banks on Clemson Road and North Main Street.

After pulling up to the ATM at Palmetto Citizens Federal Credit Union on Clemson Road Saturday morning, Chris Mayers gave the card reader a tug, as he had seen during a Sheriff’s Department demonstration in April. The plastic card reader came off in his hand.

“I didn’t think it would happen to me,” he said of realizing it was a skimmer. “I did not want that to happen to me. I work too hard (for my money).”

Investigators are working to obtain surveillance images of the individuals who put the skimmers on the ATMs this weekend. Lott said many people don’t realize their card was skimmed until days later, when fraudulent charges begin showing up on their accounts.

Surveillance images from the Rosewood Drive bank helped law enforcement connect Bonculesco to other ATMs throughout the state and around the country, Lott said. She is also a suspect in skimming thefts in the Pee Dee and Houston, Texas, areas, and is in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Investigators with the sheriff’s department and Columbia police told The State newspaper recently that skimmers are one of the leading causes of credit card fraud locally. The local uptick in card fraud cases reflects a national increase.

More consumers are realizing the threat of skimmers and are pulling on the card reader before using an ATM, Lott said. Law enforcement is working with banks to get employees to check machines, too.

“Take that second and check,” Mayers said. “It could save a lot of people, even yourself.”