A Los Angeles man has been sentenced to 41 months in federal prison for his role in building specialized skimming devices to steal at least $619,923 from an untold number of unwitting victims at gas pumps throughout Southern California.
Robert Fichidzhyan, 40, admitted in a plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego that he built “skimmers” — customized electronic devices that his accomplices secretly installed at dozens of gas stations to steal credit and debit card information.
In addition to the prison term handed down Monday, Jan. 9, Fichidzhyan was ordered to forfeit $249,890, which is the amount he personally received from the scheme, and participate with seven co-defendants, who primarily reside in Granada Hills, Glendale and North Hollywood, in paying an additional $619,923 in restitution.
“Identity thieves should not assume they are safe committing electronic larceny,” U.S. Attorney Randy S. Grossman said in a statement. “Anyone who victimizes the public in our jurisdiction will be brought to justice.”
Agents with the U.S. Secret Service and Internal Revenue Service assisted federal prosecutors in the investigation.
A federal grand jury returned a six-count indictment in September 2021 against the defendants, alleging access fraud conspiracy and various counts of aggravated identity theft. Fichidzhyan pleaded guilty to conspiring to use unauthorized access devices and possess device-making equipment.
Fichidzhyan is a prolific scammer, with credit card fraud and identity theft-related convictions dating back to 2002, when he was 19, according to prosecutors. In 2010 he and another individual were convicted in Utah of skimming victims’ financial information at gas pumps, collecting 4,052 stolen credit card numbers in 11 days, a sentencing memorandum says.
Fichidzhyan’s role in the Southern California scheme was to build skimming devices used extensively by his alleged co-conspirators.
Typically, fraudsters insert a skimming device inside an ATM or a gas pump to steal transaction data used by customers to complete bank withdrawals or gas purchases. The skimming device stores the stolen data until it is retrieved by the skimmer or an associate.
After retrieving the stolen data, a fraudster can encode a new unauthorized card bearing the victim’s real information, including the account and PIN number, and use it to make purchases or withdraw cash.
Fichidzhyan’s fingerprints showed up on skimming devices recovered during the investigation and were linked to his alleged co-conspirators, according to court documents.
Electronics supplier records show that Fichidzhyan ordered at least 14 separate shipments of the kinds of components used to build skimmers from July 2016 to July 2018 at his former residence and then transitioned to using straw recipients or addresses to receive supplies. Additionally, telephone records show that Fichidzhyan was in regular contact with the co-defendants who installed the skimming devices, suggesting that he actively provided technical support for his products, prosecutors said.
Federal agents began observing the alleged co-conspirators intensively installing and downloading from skimming devices at gas stations across Southern California in September 2019. Fingerprints belonging to two of the defendants were found on some of the skimmers seized by law enforcement, prosecutors said.
Other fingerprints and DNA recovered on the skimmers led agents to those involved in building the devices, including Fichidzhyan. Specifically, they found Fichidzhyan’s fingerprints on a skimming device recovered from a gas station in South Gate in September 2019 and his DNA on a device at another station in National City in July 2020, court records state.
Although Fichidzhyan’s only source of reported income besides unemployment and disability benefits was a $10-an-hour job at his parent’s health care business, his bank account included cash deposits of $249,890 during the duration of the conspiracy, according to court records.
Prosecutors say they haven’t been able to determine the exact number of victims in the skimming scheme because they are too numerous to calculate.
“Calculating the number of victims is difficult and time-consuming, as it requires comparing card numbers across hundreds of transactions and then attempting to trace card numbers to individual victims, which often requires multiple rounds of subpoenas and many hours of analysis by bank staff and investigating agents,” according to the sentencing memorandum.
A hearing for the seven remaining defendants is scheduled for March 20.