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Scam involving GoPro cameras cost thousands for Aspen retail

Police believe this woman, photographed at a Glenwood Springs sporting good store in December, is a member of a Miami-based ring focused on buying GoPro cameras with stolen credit card information.

Just as this year’s Winter X Games kicked off, subscribers to the Pitkin Alert system received an odd prompt.

“Known credit-card scammers have returned to the Roaring Fork Valley,” it said. “Report suspicious activity to local police.”

No explanation, no context, no nothing.

As it turns out, there’s a backstory, said Aspen Police Det. Jeff Fain.

And while the two men who prompted the Jan. 28 alert probably weren’t related to the Florida-based crew police thought might have returned for the X Games, the two men were employing a crude version of the same scam the Florida crew used to steal thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise from several Aspen-area businesses around Thanksgiving, Fain said.

“It was the same M.O.,” he said. “They tried to make $500-plus transactions with Mastercards with raised numbers but no names.”

The successful Thanksgiving criminals manufactured cards with names on them that matched official identification like a passport, and with credit-card numbers that worked. The two white men wearing ski gear who tried to make the large purchases at sporting-goods stores in Aspen on Jan. 25 and Snowmass Village on Jan. 27 had Texas identification but the nameless cards they tried to use didn’t go through, Fain said.

“All these guys are making (credit) cards,” he said. “It’s huge. There are whole websites dedicated to how to make credit cards.”

The necessary equipment to make and imprint credit cards is readily available, and various Internet sites sell blocks of valid credit-card numbers, Fain said. The scam is effective partially because it can take weeks or months for people to notice fraudulent transactions on their credit cards and report them.

But suspicious behavior can trigger retailer and law enforcement-based networks that can start humming and be just as effective in identifying the thieves before they disappear. That’s what happened between Nov. 26 and Dec. 2, when a man and two women stole $24,000 worth of goods and services from Aspen-area retailers and were nearly caught days later in Vail when they tried to do the same thing, Fain said.

The man and the two women Fain believes were Brazilian first came to his attention Dec. 2, when Aspen Skiing Co.’s retail operations called him about fraudulent credit-card transactions that centered on GoPro cameras, he said. The phone call rang a bell because he’d just received an email from a regional investigators’ group about two Hispanic males using stolen credit-card information to buy GoPros in Summit County.

The Skico manager said a man and two women came into a store near the base of Aspen Mountain on Nov. 26 and bought three GoPros, clothes and ski gear, he said. The next day, the same crew came into the upstairs part of the same store and wanted to buy six more GoPros.

Fain said the manager told him there were not enough GoPros upstairs, so the clerk went downstairs to get more. The same manager who sold the three GoPros the day before brought the six additional cameras upstairs and recognized the man.

At that point, the man became nervous and left, and one of the women with him paid for the six cameras, the Skico manager said. The incidents prompted the Skico manager to look at GoPro sales at other Skico-owned businesses during the previous few days. He found 20 more in Aspen and Snowmass Village, which all turned out to be fraudulent, Fain said. The same people also purchased ski lessons, clothing and lots of bottles of oxygen and Advil, he said.

Four days after they were last seen in the Aspen area, one of the women tried to buy more GoPros and ski lessons at a shop in Vail that had been tipped to the scam, Fain said. Employees called Vail police, who arrived while the woman was still there. However, she saw them and was able to run out a back door to a waiting car and escape.

“We haven’t seen her since,” Fain said.

Fain believes the same crew hit Sports Authority stores in Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction. But a suspicious manager at another sporting-goods store in Glenwood Springs took cellphone pictures of the woman who was almost caught in Vail, her credit card and her passport, providing authorities with a crisp picture of her rather than a grainy still from surveillance video, Fain said.

Around the same time, two Cuban men — one with a wallet full of credit cards — were arrested in Boulder on suspicion of trying to run the same scheme. They men bonded out of jail and disappeared, but Fain believes they were part of the same Miami-based crew.

Finally, not long after word got around town about the GoPro-based scam, Fain said he received a call from an employee of the FedEx store in Aspen. The same Brazilian man and two women came into the store Dec. 1 or 2 and shipped about 60 GoPros to Florida, the employee told Fain.

Fain said he’s unsure about the significance of GoPros, though he’s heard that they are hard to find in Brazil and can command as much as three times the U.S. price.

“Pretty good turnaround for free,” Fain said.

An announcement on the GoPro website from 2014, however, states that GoPros were about to become available in that country for about $435 thanks to a new manufacturing facility in the country.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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