Credit card fraud case still under investigation

December 29, 2006

Marie Havenga

Federal officials are still trying to crack the credit card fraud case that apparently stemmed from late-summer purchases at Wesco fuel stations. They're also stepping up the pace to prevent identity-theft infractions in the future.

Dick Murray, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, said there has been no recent credit card abuse, to the best of his knowledge likely because banks and credit card companies were quick to issue new cards to their customers after seeing questionable charges on customers' statements, he added.

Murray said there is no reason to believe Wesco officials or employees had any part in the recent alleged credit card scam.

In an age of fast-transit information, bad things can happen in the wrong hands, according to Murray. The problem appears geographically limited to West Michigan and Lakeshore consumers.

"I can't directly comment on that question, but using common sense it seems the credit card companies have identified a likely merchant as a source, and that would be consistent with West Michigan involvement," Murray said.

Wesco worked with U.S. Secret Service agents and the U.S. Attorney's office to identify possible fraud and identity theft that allegedly occurred between July 25 and Sept. 7 at some of the company's 51 Michigan facilities. Wesco spokeswoman Ginny Seyferth said Thursday that there has been no incidents of questionable credit card activity since Sept. 7.

Some Tri-Cities residents experienced credit card statement charges during that timeframe from as far away as Tokyo, Spain and New York for purchases they denied making.

Although Murray said he wasn't allowed to disclose details of the investigation, he said the fraudulent charges totaled more than $3 million, which would be one of the largest heists to occur during such a short-time period.

"There have been some abusers identified," said Murray, who last month said several suspects were in custody. "We are taking steps to see if they can be interviewed, but they aren't necessarily the type of people who want to help law enforcement. We have no indication it was an inside job."

Murray added that he presently has "no idea" when the case will be resolved.

"There's a substantial likelihood that the (credit card) numbers that were stolen were passed off to another group of people who abused them," Murray said. "It's possible to pass that information to anyone via the Internet. I think the (Wesco) problem was taken care of in the banks' process of generating new cards. About 20,000 cards were reissued, and I think the period of abuse is over. As a precaution, the banks reissued a larger number of cards than were actually abused."

Wesco officials last fall took precautions as well, posting warning signs on gas pumps that read: "We are investigating the possibility of credit card fraud associated with card use at our facilities. Wesco is cooperating fully with federal authorities. We encourage you to verify transactions with your financial institutions."

Wesco operates fuel stations at 502 W. Savidge St. in Spring Lake, 14750 Mercury Drive in Grand Haven Township, and multiple locations in Muskegon, Ravenna and Fruitport.

Murray said the recent credit card abuse has led to increased awareness among his federal staff.

"I can't go into specifics, but our agents are pursuing a number of options," he said. "We're working on two ends. One is how data is analyzed by the banks before we get a hold of it, and obviously the abuse of the cards, and if there's something we can analyze there."

Murray added: "We don't think this will be the last such incident. That's why we're trying to learn more. We want to design a better system to understand and respond to these issues ... so that we can be better prepared in the future."

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