Authorities bust ID theft ring preying on LIRR customers

Four arrests have been made in connection with a scam that used hidden cameras and bank card skimmers to target MTA Long Island Rail Road customers using ticket vending machines on Long Island and in Queens. Videojournalist: Chuck Fadely (Nov. 1, 2013)

A band of identity thieves armed with hidden cameras and bank card readers that preyed on LIRR and Metro-North riders has been arrested, and authorities believe thousands of customers may have been at risk.

Four Romanian nationals, including a husband and wife, have been charged with identity theft and other crimes, authorities said yesterday.

Evidence seized at an Elmhurst, Queens, apartment showed that thousands of debit and credit card numbers had been stolen over several months from Nassau, Queens and Westchester residents, authorities said.

Cash, pinhole cameras, bank card "skimmers" and flash drives containing account numbers were found at the apartment, according to police.

While the amount of money stolen isn't yet known, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said one bank reported "tens of thousands" of dollars in thefts from more than 50 accounts.

"Ticket vending machines are a source of convenience for thousands of people who take the railroad every single day, but . . . those machines have become a source of convenience and opportunity for a crew of brazen thieves," Rice said in a statement.

Arrested were Valer Zaharia, 38, and his wife, Teodora Zaharia, 27; and Niculae Petre, 45, and Dorin Husa, 37.

Husa entered the United States illegally, authorities said, and the others have visas that expire in 2022. If convicted, all face possible deportation.

The Zaharias installed the cameras and card readers on ticket vending machines at Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North stations, authorities said.

Petre and Husa are accused of using the stolen card information and PINs to make fake cards, which the Zaharias then allegedly used to steal money from ATMs.

Authorities said the scam was discovered by accident about two weeks ago when a customer at the LIRR Bayside station noticed that a piece of plastic had broken off a ticket machine and handed it to an employee.

MTA police examined the object and discovered a tiny camera. When officers checked the machine, they found the skimming device mounted over the bank card slot.

Police inspected all 278 LIRR ticket vending machines and found nine skimming devices at five stations: Bayside, Queens, and Great Neck on the Port Washington branch; Merillon Avenue and Sea Cliff on the Huntington/Port Jefferson branch; and Greenvale on the Oyster Bay branch. Three more devices were found at the Chappaqua Metro-North station.

To catch the thieves, police disabled the skimmers and cameras, and put them back on the machines.

After several days of round-the-clock surveillance, authorities said the Zaharias showed up at the Sea Cliff station on Monday night to fetch the card reader and camera. They were immediately arrested.

Information obtained from the Zaharias led police to execute a search at the Elmhurst apartment, where Petre and Husa were arrested.

As the investigation continues, officials are urging riders to be vigilant when using debit and credit cards to buy railroad tickets.

"We cannot guarantee that there aren't others out there ready to do the same thing," said LIRR president Helena Williams.

The Zaharias were arraigned Tuesday in First District Court in Hempstead on charges of second-degree identity theft, criminal possession of forgery devices and second-degree unlawful possession of a skimmer device. The couple is being held without bail.

Petre and Husa were arraigned Wednesday in Queens on charges of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, criminal possession of forgery devices, and second-degree unlawful possession of personal identification information. Petre was held on $50,000 bond; Husa on $35,000 bond.

Their attorneys could not be reached. If convicted, all four face up to 7 years in prison.

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