The sharp eye of a Meijer loss-prevention manager helped stop an interstate crime ring involving counterfeit credit cards, Lexington police said.
The three men who were arrested are thought to be Chinese citizens who have used counterfeit credit cards in at least five states, Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said at a news conference Monday.
Le Yu, 22, Lei Tian, 22, and Liye Zhei, 23, are each charged with 86 counts of criminal possession of a forged instrument and one count each of false making or embossing of a credit card, and receiving goods by fraud under $10,000.
The men were arraigned Monday, and Fayette District Judge T. Bruce Bell entered not-guilty pleas for the men because the charges are felonies and the men did not have attorneys.
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Lexington police were called after the Meijer employee observed them "acting strangely" on Friday, Roberts said. The men were at the Meijer in Hamburg, allegedly using fake credit cards to buy iPods.
The employee "called us just off a hunch — just off a behavior," she said. "One person's sharp eye really helped to stop this activity."
Roberts said she could not identify the employee who alerted police.
When asked to identify the employee, David Peterson, a spokesmen for Meijer, said in a statement that "our policy is that we do not discuss loss-prevention issues externally."
"We are very proud of the great service our loss-prevention team member provided in assisting with the identification of the suspects, and we will continue to work closely with the local authorities," he said.
The employee gave police a description of the men and their car, and the car was pulled over at Man o' War Boulevard and Beaver Creek Drive. Inside the car, police found iPods and 86 fake credit cards, Roberts said.
According to citations filed in Fayette District Court, the men also had $5,200 worth of phone cards and at least $4,700.
The men have California addresses, according to the documents. But Roberts said police don't think the men are American citizens.
The Fayette County Detention Center is working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine the men's immigration status. The Secret Service also is investigating because the cards were used in multiple states, she said.
It appeared the men flew to Atlanta from California and drove north along Interstate 75, using the cards in Georgia, Ohio and Indiana, Roberts said. In Kentucky, the cards also were used in London and Somerset.
According to court documents, the charges total $10,000 in Kentucky. At least 14 banks were defrauded by the men, Roberts said.
The men apparently cloned the credit cards, Roberts said, meaning they copied the information from active credit cards to the magnetic strip of a blank credit card.
"You could still have your card in your possession in your wallet, and they could have a copy of it," Roberts said.
It's unclear whether the men speak English. Police used a translator to communicate with them, but a court secretary told Bell during the arraignment that they had spoken English during interviews.
When Bell asked whether Lei Tian spoke English, he said no. The men were arraigned via video from the jail, where each is being held on a $258,000 bond.
Bell asked the jail to find an interpreter for the men's preliminary hearing March 24.