By Sam Adams
By day, Stephen Chan is a mild-mannered middle school history teacher.
But in a court case that concluded last month, he found himself the key player in thwarting an international ATM caper.
One September night outside a bank, Chan arrived at the Citibank in Manhattan Village around 8 p.m. on Sept. 25, and he noticed a small crowd around the bankâs outdoor ATM.
The man in front of him drew Chanâs suspicion when he started using multiple cardsâ15 to 20 by Chanâs estimate.
“By this time I thought there was something definitely strange going on so I started watching him,” Chan said. “He kept [inserting more cards] and at the same time he was talking in a language I was trying to identify but couldnât figure out what it was.”
Only after the man completed his transactions did the mysterious crowd disperse.
Chanâs suspicion grew when he drove out of the mall, only to notice the same man using another ATM at a nearby Bank of America.
At this point, Chan decided to call the police.
When the man got into a car and drove away, Chan trailed him at a two-car distance, relaying the carâs position to the cops as he drove up the Pacific Coast Highway.
Chan said he knew his subject was not a local when he drove in the right lane, which any resident knows is frequently obstructed by parked cars.
The man pulled into a Taco Bell and eight squad cars from Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo Beach swarmed and arrested him.
As it turns out, Chan had stumbled onto an international ATM scam being run by Romanian organized crime.
The thievesâfocusing on Citibankâdeveloped false keyboards for ATMs, which they can install and use to steal customersâ card and PIN numbers.
They would transfer this data onto fake cards and withdraw money, which is then wired to Romania where it essentially disappeared.
Chan said the four men he encountered outside the ATM were probably the ones who had installed the fake equipment, while the man using the ATM was kept separate so he would not be on any security tapes.
“The other guys who install all the stuff are on the tape,” Chan said. “He can commit the crime and not be seen. Except by me.”
The group of four men that Chan had encountered outside his bank were responsible for $70,000 worth of theft alone.
Chan suspects that it represents a much larger plot by an organized crime syndicate.
Chan did not have to testify against the man, later identified by possible alias George Puflene, because he pleaded guilty.
He was sentenced to one year in prison for identity theft, among other charges.
The four other men escaped in a separate car and were not found.