New York police have broken up an international identity theft ring that made fake credit cards using information swiped off real cards in banks, restaurants and retail stores, authorities said.
More than 111 people have been charged and 86 were detained on Friday in the operation, which involved five criminal organizations in the New York borough of Queens with links in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
"These weren't holdups at gunpoint, but the impact on victims was the same," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. "They were robbed."
The Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, said it was "by far the largest - and certainly among the most sophisticated - identity theft/credit card fraud cases that law enforcement has come across".
The investigation, which began in October 2009, also netted an additional two dozen people on charges related to robberies and burglaries in Queens.
The way the scheme worked was employees, and sometimes business owners, in restaurants, banks and retail stores would use skimming devices to swipe customers' credit card information.
The information was then passed to bosses of five criminal organizations operating from Queens, who in turn passed it to "manufacturers" who would encode the information on blank credit cards, using a "reverse skimming device".
The blank cards came from suppliers in Russia, Libya, Lebanon and China.
The criminals allegedly produced American Express, Mastercards, Visa and Discover Cards with forged security numbers, logos, and sometimes supplementary fake ids like New York drivers' licenses.
The fake cards were then given to "shoppers" who used them to buy high-end electronics and other easily resaleable items, while living it up in luxury hotels and beach resorts, according to prosecutors.
The goods purchased were mostly resold to customers overseas.
Commissioner Kelly said that the level of sophistication that went into coordinating the scheme was "mind-boggling".
"These crimes are getting more sophisticated and thieves have amazing knowledge of how to use technology," he said.
'An Apple case'
The "shoppers" employed by the crime ring were apparently instructed to focus their purchases on Apple products.
Gregory Antonsen, New York Police Department Deputy Inspector, said: "This is primarily an Apple case. Apple is a big ticket item and a very easy sell."
Police seized Apple products worth tens of thousands of dollars, $850,000 worth of stolen computer equipment, $650,000 in cash, handguns and a truck full of electronics, designer shoes, watches, identity theft equipment and other goods.
The enterprise was worth an estimated $13mn, according to police, who said they used court-approved wiretaps on dozens of phones to build their case. Detectives spent hours translating conversations in Russian, Mandarin and Arabic as part of the probe.