NEWPORT NEWS - Three Newport News co-workers say they were all victims of fraud after going to El Tapatio restaurant on Thimble Shoals Boulevard.
Police say at least 50 customers became victims when their debit or credit card numbers were stolen last year. No one knows exactly how it happened.
Tami Horton was shocked when she discovered the thief re-encoded her number onto a card and charged $150.00 at Publix grocery store in Miami. She told co-workers, who had similar stories.
"They were like, 'wow, the same thing happened to me too' and we were like, alright let's think about it. Where have all been at the same time?" she said.
Horton, Andrew Jobes and Kevin Bishop work at Warwick Heating and Plumbing. Bishop, unaware his information was compromised, got targeted a second time because he returned to the restaurant.
"I noticed $300 in charges that weren't mine and they were all from Georgia," he stated.
Police started an investigation and learned a few officers had been victimized, too.
It doesn't stop there. Restaurant owner Caesar Ledezma said he was hacked, too. He said he's switched to another credit card processing company and hasn't had a problem since.
"I didn't know what to do to stop it. We switched right away to another company."
Detective Lorrain Crain says police haven't been able to nail down how the numbers were taken and adds she's working five similar cases at Newport News restaurants right now. However,she doesn't think they're related.
In the El Tapatio breach, Crain says it's possible the restaurant's firewall wasn't strong enough to block hackers. In most incidents, the thieves steal gift cards and re-encode the stolen numbers onto the gift cards. That's what Crain says Endris Fuentes Torres did. Police have been looking for the Newport News man for three months. He's accused of using stolen numbers on stolen gift cards at a Newport News Kmart and Food Lion last November and was identified in surveillance photos. Police believe he has left the area.
It's possible Torres could be part of a larger group. Crain says Hampton Roads has become a big target for out-of-town groups looking for unsuspecting victims. Credit card numbers are usually taken when someone uses a skimming device or a retailer is hacked. A machine purchased over the Internet allows the thief to re-encode the number onto a card.
"We're getting everyone from the north, like Philly and New York, coming down here. We're also getting them from Florida coming up this way," she explained.
The crime underscores the need for you to be vigilant about protecting your personal information. Crain says just don't use a debit card unless you have to. Thieves can easily wipe out money in a victim's bank account. She suggests you insist on watching a clerk conduct a credit or debit card transaction. Don't let anyone take your card out of your line of sight. Finally, Crain says, check your bank account(s) every single day.
As for Horton and Bishop, their banks identified the fraud early and replaced the money taken from their accounts. Jobes' bank flagged the fraud before the money was actually removed.