Scammers used Harris Teeter self-checkout and gas pumps in $5 million scheme, feds say

At least six people from Florida used gas station skimmers and self-checkout machines at Harris Teeter supermarkets to steal millions from unsuspecting victims in eight states, according to federal prosecutors.

Now they’re going to prison.

The ring leader, 33-year-old Yasmani Granja Quijada, was sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit bank fraud and aggravated identity theft last year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia said in a news release.

Five others who also pleaded guilty were previously sentenced to between one-and-a-half and five years in prison, prosecutors said.

“Mr. Granja Quijada acknowledges his wrongdoing and regrets his involvement in the conspiracy,” defense attorneys said in court filings. “He realizes there is no justification for his actions. He is remorseful and recognizes the need for punishment. Mr. Granja Quijada has accepted responsibility for his crimes.”

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The alleged scheme

Granja Quijada was arrested in June 2019 after investigators spotted him at several Harris Teeter stores in Virginia, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit supporting criminal charges.

But the alleged fraud scheme began to unravel as early as May 2018, when three co-conspirators — Yariel Monsibaez Ruiz, Ariel Mora Quijada and Denis Monsibaez Diaz — were arrested at a Harris Teeter in Mooresville, North Carolina, just north of Charlotte, after prosecutors said they were caught trying to use a cloned credit card.

All three pleaded guilty in state court to identity theft and obtaining property by false pretenses.

The arrest was part of a larger conspiracy involving credit card skimmers found at gas stations in eastern Virginia. According to the affidavit, multiple people reported their credit card information had been stolen to the Northampton County Sheriff’s Office in April 2018.

Detectives with the sheriff’s office traced the cards’ activity to a gas station in Cape Charles, Virginia, where they found credit card scammers had been secretly installed on two gas pumps, prosecutors said.

Story continues

The skimmers lifted credit and debit card numbers as well as pin numbers from unsuspecting customers, according to the affidavit. A crew of “skimmers” from Florida then reportedly used the stolen numbers to create cloned bank cards.

Investigators determined the bank cards were used to make ATM withdrawals, purchase prepaid Visa and Mastercards or buy items at Harris Teeter, enabling the user to request cash back.

“The latter two methods were frequently carried out in the self checkout lines of grocery stores, where, based on my experience and in talking with other law enforcement officials familiar with these types of schemes, employees are less likely to scrutinize the subjects and their actions,” the agent wrote.

Stolen funds paid for boat, luxury cars

FBI agents and detectives with the Northampton County Sheriff’s Office traced the scheme to an “organized gang” that frequented Harris Teeter stores in Virginia and North Carolina, according to court filings.

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At least nine people were indicted in the conspiracy, court documents show. Six have been arrested and pleaded guilty, prosecutors said, while others are still “at large and believed to be living in Mexico.”

The alleged losses totaled $5 million, and agents seized several cars, a boat and trailer that were reportedly purchased with the stolen funds, according to Tuesday’s news release. Those vehicles reportedly included a 2017 Maserati Ghibli and a 2013 Porsche Panamera.

Attorneys representing Granja Quijada — the last to be sentenced — disputed the estimated losses, saying the $5 million figure is 114 times larger than the actual loss of roughly $45,000.

They pushed for a sentence of no more than five years.

“In Mr. Granja Quijada’s case, the alleged victims did not suffer any pecuniary loss at all, neither directly nor indirectly,” court filings state. “No money was lost, personal information was not compromised, and there was no inconvenience in having to obtain even a new card.”

A federal judge disagreed, sentencing Granja Quijada to 10 years in prison and ordering him to pay $45,270.54 in restitution, court filings show.

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