At the start of Australasian Consumer Fraud Week, the Herald can reveal how two eastern European 'athletes' allegedly set up a bank skimming scheme in Auckland

Two Bulgarian men who entered New Zealand allegedly under the guise of the World Masters Games have been arrested after police foiled a fraud faction operating in Auckland.

A 31-year-old man and a 29-year-old man were arrested earlier this month during a police sting, after the pair allegedly used several cloned ATM cards to withdraw more than $15,000.

The duo arrived in New Zealand last month, and it is alleged that on 188 separate occasions during late April customer funds were illegally accessed.

The Herald understands the men were arrested near a Royal Oak supermarket.

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The day after their arrest they appeared at the Auckland District Court to face several fraud charges. After a lengthy delay as court staff sought a Bulgarian interpreter, the court heard how the men had entered the country purporting to be participating in the World Masters Games.

"[The 29-year-old] was part of a sports team that came to New Zealand as part of the Masters Games. They came out under the guise of the Masters Games," the prosecution alleged.

The court also heard how the co-accused were part of a medal-winning athletic team.

The 29-year-old's lawyer, Georgina Packer, argued successfully for interim name suppression for her client on the basis he was part of a team competing in the games.

The Bulgarians had been living in a campervan after they arrived in New Zealand on April 20.

Packer also submitted to the court, because her client had no fixed abode, he should be granted bail to allow him to move his campervan to a more secure location.

Arguing for bail, she said her client was "not a flight risk" because his passport was held by police.

The Bulgarians' visitor visas were due to expire on May 27, the court heard.

Police opposed granting the 29-year-old bail, arguing there was a "fear he will abscond".

Community Magistrate Lavinia Nathan said the man's passport "indicates he travels extensively" and "it is believed that you may well have offended in other countries".

"If you are convicted by this court it is highly likely that you may receive a term of imprisonment. It is that view that there are good reasons to abscond.

"I am not prepared to grant bail today, you will need to seek the assistance of your embassy to attend to your personal matters."

The 31-year-old man, who appeared in a police-issued blue jumpsuit, was also remanded in custody by consent.

The pair, who have yet to enter a plea, will appear in court again later this month.

Skimming: Police advise extra vigilance at ATM machines

Skimmers will continue withdrawing funds until they're stopped, say police. Photo / Richard Robinson
Skimmers will continue withdrawing funds until they're stopped, say police. Photo / Richard Robinson

Police say there has been an increase of card skimming reports and urge ATM users to be vigilant.

Official police statistics show a rise of fraud-related proceedings during the first three months of this year - with 325 in March alone - the second highest monthly figure since 2014 (the highest being August 2016 with 341).

Since the start of the year there have been 850 police proceedings relating to fraud across the country, with 744 resulting in court action, up from 833 proceedings (690 in court) last year, and 735 (594 in court) in 2015 during the same three-month period.

In 2016, police statistics also show 2477 people were dealt with by police for fraud, deception and other such related offences. In 2015 it was 2188.

Acting Detective Senior Sergeant Bridget Doell told the Herald there were pockets of international organised crime rings attempting to operate syndicates in New Zealand.

She said skimming was a popular ploy, and involves cloning New Zealand bank cards to access bank-account details.

A skimming gang was identified in Bay of Plenty last month, using cloned cards to steal thousands of dollars from several bank accounts.

"Any card with a magnetic strip can be used to download or record any banking information," the Auckland financial crime detective said.

Skimming is the process of using a device that reads the data or information contained on the electronic strip of bank cards.

The illegally read data is then transmitted onto another card, allowing the fraudster to access the customer account.

A customer's pin number is often obtained by physical observation, an electronic key-logger attached to the keypad, or a small portable camera.

Police are hoping to speak to this man, seen at a Hamilton ATM on May 5. Photo / Supplied
Police are hoping to speak to this man, seen at a Hamilton ATM on May 5. Photo / Supplied
Police are seeking this woman, seen at a Hamilton ATM this month. Photo / Supplied
Police are seeking this woman, seen at a Hamilton ATM this month. Photo / Supplied

Doell said the skimming sleeve can "be quite obvious", but some are "getting more and more sophisticated".

"The first sign is often when the cards get jammed in the machine," she said. "Any customer using any card during that time will be caught in that net."

Doell said once the device is removed the skimmers correlate a certain card to a pin number and won't stop withdrawing funds until they're caught.

She said almost every country in the world has reported skimming fraud in recent times.

Any card with a magnetic strip can be used to download or record any banking information

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Many skimmers who come to New Zealand do so under the guise of tourists and are on holiday visas, she added.

"Sometimes they withdraw the funds and spend it here, sometimes they are funding their stay and living the high life, staying in hotels, travelling and shopping."

She said skimmers will also send money overseas. Police work with banks' fraud teams and money remitters to detect suspicious transactions.

In February 2014, Operation Butterfly investigations revealed the extent of skimming in New Zealand.

An organised criminal gang was discovered, and between November 14, 2013 and January 28, 2014 more than $109,000 was stolen from 810 cloned bank cards.

Skimmers traditionally target high-volume ATMs "to just try and reap as much money as they can", Doell said.

Police reported about half a dozen skimming cases the past 12 months, with most of the offenders having been apprehended.

How to keep your money safe

• Cover your PIN with your hand.
• Use familiar ATMs, limit your visits, and avoid ATMs located in dimly lit spots.
• Check your bank balance frequently.
• Observe the ATM, if it doesn't seem right, it probably isn't.

This week is Australasian Consumer Fraud week which sees police's financial crime fighting units and financial institutions raise awareness to help people identify fraud, scams, internet cons, and extortion. We take a look at some of the fraud occurring in New Zealand.
REST OF THE SERIES:
TODAY: ATM skimming
TOMORROW: Fake invoices
WEDNESDAY: Social media scams
THURSDAY: Email extortion
FRIDAY: Lottery cons