A Texas man police say orchestrated an elaborate credit card scam using skimmers at gas pumps across Michigan has been convicted of federal charges that could put him in prison for decades.
Antonio Dejesus Perez-Martinez oversaw the scam that touched several states, resulting in credit card losses of more than $425,000, federal investigators say. A laptop computer seized in the investigation contained evidence of 824 compromised credit card numbers.
Its undoing started at a Shell gas station in Grand Ledge in August, 2015 when police questioned two men they say installed skimming devices on gas pumps.
The trail led to hotels in Wyoming and Grandville, where the group reportedly stayed while installing skimmers and used stole credit card information to buy gift cards at retail giants such as Meijer and Walmart.
Five co-defendants, some identified as Cuban nationals, earlier pleaded guilty to various charges and received federal prison sentences ranging from 21 months to more than three years.
Perez-Martinez took his chances at trial. On Monday, Jan. 30, a jury in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids found him guilty on three counts, including aggravated identity theft and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
Although Perez-Martinez was not involved in the summer, 2015 trip to metro Grand Rapids, he worked behind the scenes, federal investigators said.
He was named in a superseding indictment filed in March, 2016. Federal agents arrested Perez-Martinez in Vermont last August when he entered the U.S. from Canada. He had his first court appearance in Grand Rapids in late September.
His band is one of at least three independent groups nabbed for credit card fraud involving skimmers in West Michigan since 2015.
Some of the participants admitted to installing skimming devices on gas pumps in Michigan at the direction of Perez-Martinez. Others were tasked with retrieving the skimmers once data was collected.
The fraud came on police radar during the summer of 2015 when gas stations across the state began to discover their pumps had been broken into and skimmers installed to record credit card information. The scam targeted legions of drivers who pay at the pump.
Victims began to notice unauthorized charges to their credit card accounts, with many of purchases taking place at Meijer and Walmart stores. Participants favored stored-value cards, also called gift cards, bought at self-checkout lanes.
Investigators noticed a common thread: all of the account holders bought gas at the same pumps at the same gas stations shortly before the credit card information was used at Meijer and Walmart.
Police caught a break in August, 2015 when the manager of a Shell gas station in Grand Ledge called police to report a skimming device was found inside one of the pumps, according to a 14-page trial brief prepared by federal prosecutors. Police conducted surveillance and arrested two men after they opened one of the gas pumps. Investigators recovered a set of gas pump keys.
Nine days later, police in Grand Rapids released a bulletin alerting officers to the possibility that a group from out-of-state, possibly Cuban nationals, were installing skimmers at area gas stations and using the stolen financial information to buy gift cards at area retailers.
Michigan State Police and Wyoming police on Sept. 9, 2015 investigated a red Dodge with Florida plates and a black Audi with Texas plates parked at a hotel on 28th Street SW in Grandville.
It led to the arrests of several men, all of whom had credit cards and stored-value cards. One of the gift cards was loaded with credit card information belonging to a Belmont man; it was used to make purchases at Walmart, Walgreens and Meijer stores.
Five of the participants told investigators they got involved in committing the credit card fraud with Perez-Martinez in Texas earlier that summer. They travelled to Texas, Colorado and Wisconsin before arriving in Grand Rapids in mid-July, 2015.
Perez-Martinez has a 2014 conviction in Texas for credit card fraud. He will return to Grand Rapids federal court for sentencing in May.