Idenity theft ring hits Alameda Albertson's


Peter Hegarty

More than two dozen people have told Alameda police that they are victims of an identity theft ring that tampered with a personal identification number, or PIN, keypad at the Albertsons store on Marina Village Parkway and then used cloned credit cards to steal their money. The same sophisticated ring also hit an Albertsons in San Lorenzo, replacing a PIN pad there with a nearly identical one designed to steal the account information of customers, according to the Alameda County Sheriff's Office.

Alameda residents began reporting fraudulent activity Wednesday and by Friday morning 26 people had filed police reports, Alameda police detective Sgt. Joe McNiff said.

"But we expect that number to grow as more people begin reviewing their bank account records and realize that their accounts may have been compromised," McNiff said.

So far, at least $10,000 has been stolen from the Alameda victims.

Most of the withdrawals seem to have made from automatic teller machines in southern California.

Among the victims is a 49-year-old woman who told Alameda police that $640 was withdrawn on Tuesday from her Bank of America account at an ATM in Riverside, and another woman who discovered $102 was withdrawn from her account the same day in Ontario.

The overall number of reported victims from the two supermarkets has topped 100 people who together lost about $70,000, according to sheriff's detectives.

But the number of victims in the Bay Area could climb to more than 500, sheriff's Detective Greg Swetnam said.

Authorities suspect that someone tampered with a check-out line PIN pad at each store that customers use to pay for groceries with debit or credit cards. The card information gathered from the pad was then sent to people in the Los Angles area.

"As a precaution, I would suggest that anyone who may have shopped at Albertsons as far as back as January consider contacting their bank to get a replacement card," Alameda police Chief Walt Tibbet said Friday. "Especially since we are not too sure when the Alameda pad was tampered with."

Tibbet also suggested people review their bank records carefully, especially since victims may not initially consider withdrawals in small amounts suspicious.

The investigation into the identity theft ring began on the East Coast, then moved to Southern California, where several merchants were targeted, before shifting to the Bay Area, Swetnam said.

The federal Secret Service has been tracking the ring, and all the information gathered from local investigations eventually will be turned over to the agency, McNiff said.

Local police investigations suggest the PIN pad at the Albertsons in San Lorenzo was compromised between Jan. 26 and Feb. 4, with reports of fraudulent account activity beginning to be reported the first week of April, Swetnam said.

Alameda police began receiving reports Wednesday after Save Mart, the company that owns the 250 Albertsons stores, announced a PIN pad at the supermarket at 815 Marina Village Parkway was targeted.

"Save Mart is currently in the process of narrowing the ranges of dates on which the (unit) in the Alameda store may have been compromised," said Alicia Rockwell, a spokeswoman for the company. "Once we have this information, as well as additional information regarding the incident at the Alameda store, we will publish it on our Web site at"

Save Mart has replaced all of the PIN pads in the San Lorenzo store with pads that are more secure and "not prone to this sort of compromise," Rockwell said.

Security has been also stepped up at the Alameda store.

Just about 25 percent of people victimized by this type of scam report it to police, according to the sheriff's office. Most victims only contact their banks, which replace the stolen money, Swetnam said.

He also said the amount of money stolen by the ring could be considerably larger than what has been reported to police.

"It's something you can't spot," he said.

When asked what a consumer can do to avoid being a victim, Swetnam said: "Carry cash."

main page ATTRITION feedback