2 men arrested for skimming at gas stations

February 26, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Police say when they arrested two men recently they put the brakes on an ID theft ring using gas pumps to wipe-out bank accounts. The thieves hit at least 20 Bay Area cities.

Police cracked this case wide open and the arrest occurred at a Martinez gas station. Police say the two men they have in custody are responsible for at least 400 identity thefts in the Bay Area.

David Karapetyan and Zhirayr Zamanyan are said to be the reason for the soaring number of identity thefts in Martinez and at least 20 other Bay Area cities. According to investigators, their M.O. was simple -- get people's information at gas stations.

"They're stealing the identity and a pin number with a specific purpose of taking money from your account. So they drain the account and then they're done," said Martinez Police Commander Gary Peterson.

Martinez police say the men accessed people's accounts with skimming devices which capture a person's card and pin information. Investigators found them inside one of the pumps at the 7-11 gas station on Arnold Drive. A clerk doing routine maintenance made the discovery and called police. Detectives then installed a decoy device, waited and caught the suspects when they came to retrieve it.

"When they searched their car they found maps and GPS device with locations of other gas stations that we have found now have skimmers attached to pumps at those various gas stations," said Peterson.

Customers are relieved that an arrest has been made but are considering whether to change their habits.

"Maybe I should start going inside and just putting a set dollar amount to the cashier in there and say 'Hey put 40 bucks, 50 bucks,'" said Martinez resident Nick Gentry.

"Maybe I should just go ahead and my gas cards and do it that way or go ahead and start paying cash because I really don't feel comfortable swiping my card," said Pittsburg resident Norman Pitters.

As for police, their investigation is far from over. They believe Karapetyan and Zamanyan are just two players in an operation that goes well beyond the Bay Area. Law enforcement agencies are joining together to get to the bottom of it.

"We believe that every time they do a skimming operation they're netting $20,000 a day. So it is a big operation," said Peterson.

The suspects are from Los Angeles, but are now at the Contra Costa County jail. Both have been booked on conspiracy and multiple counts of identity theft.