By Jacob Putman
Criminal District Attorney in Smith County
In 2021, the Texas Legislature authorized the creation of the Financial Crimes Intelligence Center (FCIC). The FCIC is a team of investigators and analysts who track financial organized crime across Texas. It officially launched in January 2022, and as of March 1, 2023, it has prevented or recovered over $99 million in financial fraud. The FCIC is a state agency operated under an interlocal agreement between the Texas Department of Licensing & Regulation and the Smith County Criminal District Attorney’s Office.
Almost everyone has had the experience of finding out their credit card or debit card has been compromised. It’s a frustrating experience that can leave victims dealing with depleted bank accounts, waiting for new cards to access their money, and not knowing who stole their information or how it was stolen.
Around 2016, in Texas and across the nation, law enforcement began seeing an ever-growing number of compromised debit and credit card numbers due to gas pump skimming. Banks were also seeing an escalating rate of compromised cards. By law, banks must reimburse customers if a card transaction is reported to be fraudulent, even if the bank has no way to recover the funds from the criminal. This meant criminals got away with the money, and banks ate the losses.
The largely invisible perpetrators of a significant amount of this fraud are transnational organized criminals who understand how to exploit our financial systems, skirt law enforcement, and avoid significant prosecution. In Texas, the clever criminals utilizing gas pump skimmers began almost exclusively as Cuban nationals who entered the United States legally. They then organized themselves into small cells, with as few as three or four individuals who would take road trips along highways and back roads, planting skimming devices at gas pumps along their route. These cells could be operating individually or as part of a much larger crew, with some crews having over 20 members.
At the end of their route, they would turn around and retrace their steps, returning to their planted skimmers and retrieving the card numbers of any customer who happened to use that pump since the skimmer had been installed (the skimmers are installed inside the pump and undetectable by the customer or even law enforcement without proper training).
Occasionally, an individual or two would be caught on these trips, often resulting in state jail felony or third-degree felony charges of Credit Card/Debit Card Abuse or Possession of Fraudulent Information. The perpetrators would rarely be charged with Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity and rarely received much more than a slap on the wrist. The perpetrators would do their time, get out, and go right back to planting skimmers. And why wouldn’t they? The potential profits are astronomical.
Low-level charges were doing nothing to deter these perpetrators from their criminal trade. They also were rarely caught. Most officers wouldn’t know what a skimmer looks like if they found one. Gas pump technicians often threw skimmers away if they did find one. Even when a skimmer was found and a perpetrator caught, law enforcement and local prosecutors had no way of knowing just how many skimmers the perpetrator was responsible for.
The FCIC’s success has come from a collaborative approach: training and advising local law enforcement and prosecutor offices how to recognize and combat these crimes, as well as serving as a centralized database for tracking gas pump skimmers and identifying suspects as they travel across jurisdictions. The FCIC has also pushed for key legislative changes allowing these crimes to be prosecuted under Penal Code Chapter 71 (Organized Crime) and requiring skimmer devices to be reported to law enforcement.
The approach has been so successful that counties utilizing its expertise have obtained first-degree felony indictments and large sentences from juries. For example, in Smith County, where the FCIC office is housed, our office has obtained life sentences on some of these organized crime members. These large sentences have proven the only way to deter the organized crime members from returning.
What can the FCIC do for you?
The FCIC exists to track organized crime members and to work with local law enforcement and prosecutors to tackle these crimes. The organized crews have morphed as prosecution has increased, moving into areas of large-scale fuel theft (thousands of gallons at a time) and other major fraud. In addition to gas pump skimming and fuel theft, the FCIC works cases involving ATMs and point-of-sale skimming, check forgery rings, and almost any other type of organized crime with a financial component. The FCIC works closely with not only law enforcement, but also the financial, fuel, and retail sectors across the country.
Experts at the FCIC host trainings for interested law enforcement, serve as expert witnesses in appropriate cases, assist and advise in active investigations, and help identify suspects. They can be contacted by phone at 903/590-4977 or email at [email protected] Law enforcement can also make direct submissions into the FCIC intelligence database by accessing its secure portal; contact FCIC staff to receive a submission portal link. i
 Read an article on prosecuting gasoline thieves with the FCIC’s help at https://www.tdcaa.com/journal/using-the-tax-code-to-go-after-gas-thieves.