NEW YORK (Reuters) - Seven waiters at New York's top steakhouses were busted for stealing the American Express card numbers of rich customers and using them to buy luxury goods, authorities said on Friday.
High-tech "skimmers" -- hard to detect because they fit into the palm of a hand -- captured customers' credit card numbers at high-end restaurants in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, including Smith & Wollensky's and the Capital Grille, according to indictments unveiled by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
The two indictments, with a total of 172 criminal counts, detailed the scheme run by the 28-member ring, which included seven waiters, 10 shoppers, several organizers and a handful of customers who bought the luxury goods knowing they were stolen.
The cards targeted were those with a high-limit or unlimited American Express credit cards. These included the famed "black card," which ensured that the ring could make purchases without fear of automatic red flags with American Express, said New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
After the waiters skimmed the credit cards, the numbers were then used to manufacture phony credit cards, complete with embossed numbers and the names of the customers whose cards were skimmed, investigators said.
An army of shoppers equipped with the cards -- and in some cases, matching fraudulent driver's licenses -- were sent to stores such as Jimmy Choo, Cartier and Neiman Marcus to purchase handbags, shoes and other items, according to the indictments. The items were resold for profit.
Search warrants executed Thursday at a storage unit in midtown Manhattan and other locations turned up more than $1 million worth of watches and more than $1.2 million in cash, among other items, authorities said.
The charges range from grand larceny to enterprise corruption, New York State's equivalent of racketeering. The alleged ringleader, Luis Damian Jacas, 41, faces more than 135 felony counts in all.
"Every day, hard-working New Yorkers find themselves the victim of identity theft," Vance said at a press conference. "It can take years for those individuals to have their credit restored."
The 18-month investigation was conducted by the Secret Service, the New York Police Department and the Manhattan district attorney's office and included wiretapping phones, monitoring email accounts, analyzing financial records, and tailing shoppers, Vance said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Greg McCune)