SPECIAL REPORT: Stopping the Skimmers

TYLER, Texas (KETK) - It seems like every week, another card skimming case pops up in East Texas.

"It didn't start in East Texas, but it blew up in East Texas. It actually started in the Houston area," Tyler Police Sgt. Adam Colby said.

The state of Texas has been hit pretty hard by card skimmers. In fact, so far this year, there have been more than 600 complaints filed with the Department of Agriculture.

State Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller says his agency has been working tirelessly to make sure card skimmers aren't being put into gas pumps anymore.

He even revamped the Consumer Protection Division and is now running public service announcements to make sure everyone knows how to protect themselves from the illegal devices.

"When I revamped that program, I added a Card Skimmer Protection Program. Prior, it took us eight years to check all the fuel pumps. We have that down to every 12 months now, and we're opening the pumps up and checking for any card skimmers," Miller said.

Sgt. Colby has been investigating these crimes since they first started popping up a few years ago.

"This tends to be organized into smaller cells based upon what part of Cuba you're from. Most of the cells seem to be from the same part of Cuba. They may or may not intermingle but the crews tend to based on those lines as well as blood family lines," Colby said.

Colby isn't sure why the card skimming thieves are from Cuba.

Tyler PD has arrested more than 20 people in connection with these crimes and nearly all of them are from the Caribbean nation.

In 2017, in the city limits of Tyler, the police department found 41 card skimmers inside gas pumps.

In Smith County and the surrounding areas, Tyler Police, working with other agencies, seized 96 more card skimmers.

The first card skimming case of 2018 was just two weeks ago, but Tyler Police swooped into pretty quickly and made three arrests as the criminals returned to this gas station to retrieve the skimmers they had set up.

"We've just investigated this to a higher level. Instead of just coming in with a charge of Credit Card Abuse or Single Fraudulent Use of Identifying Information, we are working this up to a much higher level. Most of the people we have arrested have been arrested at felony level of Engaging in Organized Crime," Colby said.

Tyler Police have also gone international with their crime solving.

Last month, working in conjunction with the US Marshal's Office and the Secret Service, investigators arrested two Cuban nationals who took off to Mexico.

Sgt. Colby says the two suspects are key figures in a major card skimming operation.

"It's the first time I've ever been involved in an international fugitive case," Colby added.

The Tyler Police Department is so far ahead in solving these crimes, that other law enforcement agencies are asking for their help. And just last month, the Office of the Texas Attorney General invited Sgt. Colby and his Financial Crime Unit to Austin -- also for help.

"It feels great. It's good to have your work recognized. My detectives work really, really hard to get this result. I think one of the reasons why they asked us to come down is because as far as I know, we are the only jurisdiction in Texas that has pretty much wiped this out," Colby said.

"Pretty much cleaned them out of Tyler, they're gone, for the most part, but they've moved to other parts of the state. They're in Austin right now, and Katy and Houston," Commissioner Miller added.

Sgt. Colby can only attribute the lower crime numbers to one thing.

"When you've got guys that are getting arrested and getting sentenced, as we had a couple of weeks ago, to 30 years in prison, we're basically telling these folks that the risk is not worth the reward," Colby said.

Everyone involved is now hoping the Attorney General meeting will get the banking, fuel and retail industries to work with them to prevent these crimes from happening in the first place.

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