REACT Nabs Gas Station Data Thieves

Officials arrest three in Southern California skimming ring at the pump

Jeff Rosen Santa Clara County District Attorney

Jeff Rosen

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- An initiative from the Santa Clara (Calif.) District Attorney's Office garnered three arrests and charges this month against members of a Southern California identity theft ring, one that is accused of installing electronic "skimming" devices into gasoline dispensers to steal gas station customers' credit-card information.

The two-year-old Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT) investigation led to the arrest of three of the defendants, now in custody on felony identity theft charges. The three are members of a single family, who allegedly organized the criminal efforts. Mother and son, Petra Vaca and Luis Gomez were scheduled to be arraigned this past week. Facing similar charges, Lupe Castelar, Vaca's daughter, will be in court on March 4.

The "skimming crews" implanted electronic devices in gasoline dispensers throughout the Bay Area and elsewhere, siphoning credit-card information, creating counterfeit credit cards and buying more than $500,000 in merchandise, mostly Apple computers, the district attorney's office said in a release.

"The … thieves … are becoming ever more sophisticated, using technology instead of crowbars and handguns," said Jeff Rosen, district attorney for Santa Clara County. "REACT investigators are combining high-tech forensics and old-fashioned police work to protect the community against a new generation of tech-savvy criminals."

REACT began this investigation in 2012 after two suspects were arrested by the Gilroy Police Department for using counterfeit credit cards to purchase Rolex watches. The suspects and other members of the crew were identified as residents of Southern California, who had used counterfeit credit cards created from skimmed information.

In Dec. 2013, investigators tracked two crews who drove from Southern California to Sunnyvale to buy more than $80,000 in merchandise with fake credit cards. An investigation determined the credit cards were created from information stolen through skimmers inside gasoline dispensers at gas stations in San Jose, San Francisco, Los Altos, Fremont and Redwood City.

The Santa Clara District Attorney's Office did not say which gas station or convenience store chains the data thieves victimized.

During the arrests and searches in Ontario, Fontana, Whittier, and Yucaipa, Calif., earlier this month, REACT investigators confiscated hundreds of counterfeit credit cards, dozens of fraudulent California drivers' licenses, more than two-dozen credit-card skimming devices, credit-card manufacturing lab equipment, a kilogram of cocaine and multiple weapons, including assault rifles and a grenade launcher.