NEW YORK (10/12/11)--Roughly 111 people--among them employees of financial institutions--have been charged in a worldwide identity-theft scheme based in Queens County, N.Y., allegedly responsible for an estimated $13 million in fraudulent purchases. The defendants, members of five organized crime rings based in Queens County with ties to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, allegedly stole account information with card skimming devices in financial institutions, restaurants and stores. Eighty-six are in police custody. Another 25 are still at large. The defendants were charged in 10 indictments, culminating a two-year investigation, dubbed “Operation Swiper” by authorities. Queen County District Attorney Richard A. Brown calls the indictments the “largest identity theft takedown in U.S. history.” “This is by far the largest--and certainly among the most sophisticated--identity theft/credit card fraud cases that law enforcement has come across,” Brown said. “Credit card fraud and identity theft are two of the fastest-growing crimes in the U.S., afflicting millions of victims and costing billions of dollars in losses to consumers, businesses and financial institutions. Thousands of people were allegedly defrauded during 16 months, from May 2010 until last month. Scamsters often gained victims’ credit card information from restaurant employees who used hand-held skimming machines, according to the indictment. Hackers working overseas and financial institution employees also played a role in stealing personal information, they said. Earlier this year, CUNA Mutual Group reported an uptick in card fraud, saying credit unions across the nation were experiencing losses. Those losses were not believed to be a part of the skimming activities, however. Stolen account numbers were sent to a “manufacturer” who re-encoded the information onto the magnetic strips of blank credit cards using a “reverse” skimming device. Other members of the ring then forged credit cards with the stolen account information and went on weekly shopping sprees, purchasing designer clothes, electronics, jewelry and travel services. Shoppers were helped by collusive store owners or employees who had access to cardholder information and could identify high-value targets and/or steal credit card information, according to the indictments. Once a shopper purchased high-end merchandise with forged credit cards, the merchandise was turned over to the crew leader who gave the merchandise to the ringleader of the operation. The ringleader would sell the merchandise to a “fence” at a discounted price. Nearly two dozen of the defendants were also charged with participating in burglaries and robberies in Queens County. Four defendants are charged with conspiring to commit a bank robbery in Forest Hills, N.Y. Five are charged with stealing more than $95,000 worth of cargo from Kennedy Airport, and seven are accused of stealing about $850,000 worth of computer equipment from the Citigroup Building in Long Island City.