Jail sentences for two men involved in international ATM card skimmer scam

Two men from Bulgaria have been jailed for ATM card skimming attacks after an investigation between the Maltese police and Europol

Two men from Bulgaria have been jailed for ATM card skimming attacks after they were caught in a joint investigation with Europol.

Inspector Yvonne Farrugia charged Kitanchev Blagoy Zhorov and Polihinorov Spas Georgiev from Bulgaria with criminal conspiracy in connection with card skimming attacks in 2017. Zhorov alone was charged with possession of objects used for fraud.

Card skimmers are devices inserted into ATM card slots, which read and copy the information on unsuspecting customers’ bank cards. This is often used in conjunction with a hidden camera which captures the users inputting their PIN.

The case dates back to December 2017 when the police received information from the Bulgarian authorities that the two men were responsible for several ATM skimming attacks in Bulgaria and other countries. They had been arrested in Vietnam in 2013, according to the information received by the police, and were currently on their way to Malta on a Wizz Air flight, probably to catch a catamaran to Sicily and carry out skimming attacks in Naples.

Police established that the men were on board the flight but had not bought any catamaran tickets, causing him to suspect that they were carrying out attacks in Malta.

They were arrested at their hotel in St. Julians on 16 December 2017 in an early morning raid by the police. Inside Kitanchev’s luggage, police found tools used for the deployment of deep insert skimmers which, as the name suggests, would be hidden inside ATM card readers to copy data. Polihinirov’s suitcase contained a laptop, external hard disk and a number of pen drives.

Under interrogation, the men denied any criminal involvement. Kitanchev claimed that the tools found in his possession belonged to a friend who had lent him the suitcase. Polihinorov told the police that he had come to Malta to celebrate his birthday with his friend. He denied having ever been arrested in Vietnam.

Magistrate Joe Mifsud, in his judgment on the case, said it was one based on circumstantial evidence, which jurisprudence had established had to all point in the direction of guilt, for it to be found.

The defence had argued that a court expert had concluded that the tools found in the men’s luggage were not traditional card skimmers, nor could they have been used as such, as a magnetic stripe which was essential for skimming was absent. The expert’s report, however, did not exclude that they could have been used for other purposes. This put them in a “grey area,” said the expert.

But this was contradicted by the testimony of the technical expert appointed to examine their electronics. Dr Martin Bajada found hundreds of files, amounting to some 1.2 terabytes of video clips from ATMs, showing users inputting their PIN numbers. The defence argued that the videos were old and did not relate to Malta.

Police Inspector Fabian Fleri had told the magistrate that he had been working on the case together with Europol and that one of the men had been in prison in Vietnam and had established contact with a convicted ATM skimmer.

Magistrate Mifsud observed that the elements of criminal conspiracy were present, noting that the accused men had come to Malta to implement a plan which had been agreed upon abroad.

Whilst one of the men had claimed to have come to Malta to celebrate his birthday with the other, his co-accused had said he visited as he had found a cheap deal, making no mention of the birthday celebrations, observed the court.

He noted that the presence of the tools, albeit without the magnetic stripe, indicated the intention to defraud victims through card skimming. This was strengthened by the presence of the video footage which showed PIN codes. Although the data was not fresh, it could still be used to cause damage to victims years later, said the court.

Magistrate Mifsud made no bones about the fact that he did not believe Georgiev’s claim to have been celebrating his birthday, saying that he had been in possession of information on 59 potential victims’ bank cards.

The court ruled that the prosecution had managed to prove the accused formed part of a criminal organisation and that the intention of their visit to Malta was not to celebrate or go on holiday, but to carry out fraud. Had it not been for the intervention of the police, this plan would have been executed.

Finding the men guilty as charged, the court handed Zhorov a six-year prison sentence and Georgiev a five-year sentence. They were also ordered to pay €3,101 in costs.