July 11, 2019
A Houston man arrested in March for identity theft has been indicted on new charges reflecting the massive scope of a scam and raising his possible sentence from 20 years in prison to life, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced Thursday.
Wilfredo Columbie-Tellez, 42, who has been in the Harris County Jail since March, was indicted Wednesday for the possessing and using more than 50 pieces of illegally obtained identifying information. Investigators still going through Columbie-Tellez’s equipment say he may have amassed hundreds of credit card and debit card numbers to use in scams.
“Filling your tank with gas shouldn’t make people vulnerable to identity theft,” Ogg said. “We are all potential victims of this kind of fraud, which is why we investigate and prosecute this kind of crime.”
Columbie-Tellez was arrested March 13 after a months-long investigation by the cyber-crime division of the Houston Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
During a December traffic stop, an HPD officer noticed that Columbie-Tellez’s pick-up truck had a modified gas tank.
The larger than normal gas tank raised suspicion because the modification is common to an organized crime scam that involves buying diesel fuel using stolen credit card numbers and selling it to operators of 18-wheelers.
In January, investigators followed up on the patrol officer’s hunch. They tailed Columbie-Tellez as he left his Sharpstown apartment, to fill up his pick-up at a gas station next door. He then bought more gas at a different service station about four miles away, drove across town to a truck yard in east Houston, where 18-wheelers are housed and then bought gas again.
By tracing the credit card number for one of his fill-ups, investigators were able to trace the number to a stolen credit card number and charge Columbie-Tellez with identity theft. He was arrested in March.
At his apartment during the arrest, police found a skimmer—an electronic device commonly hidden in gas pumps that steals the information off the magnetic stripe of a credit card or debit card when the card is used legitimately.
Police also found several thumb drives with credit card numbers and the electronic machine used to read the numbers and burn them onto magnetic stripe on the back of gift cards. With that equipment, an identity thief can skim hundreds of card numbers then burn them on to any gift card with a magnetic strip turning it into a fraudulent credit card. In March he was charged with two felony offenses and was facing up to 20 years in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Robert Buss is prosecuting the case. He said the evidence recovered during the arrest has been forensically examined and shows that Columbie-Tellez had more than 50 card numbers, which is the threshold to charge a first-degree felony. If convicted, he now faces the possibility of life in prison.
“You hear a lot about skimmers and identity theft and we are trying to go after these guys aggressively,” he said. “Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. There are others out there.”
This case is unusual, he said, because although investigators commonly find skimmers in gas pumps, the small devices are hard to trace back to the person who put them in and harvesting the credit card numbers. The device can be installed on a gas pump is less than a minute, and then the identity thief can return periodically to download the numbers over a Bluetooth connection without even touching the pump.
Installing a skimmer or possessing one with intent to use it is a criminal offense with a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison.