Secret lair of the man who milked millions from SA credit cards
By DOMINIC MAHLANGU, DUMISANE LUBISI and STANIMIR VAGLENOV in Bulgaria
26 June 2005
BULGARIAN mafioso hunted for operating the biggest credit-card fraud racket to have hit South Africa is back in business in his home town.
Jelio Smaragdov Staykov, 35, who bribed his way out of the holding cells at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court five months ago, is a member of the Eastern European country’s mafia called the “Wrestlers.”
Powerful and wealthy, they run the most highly organised crime syndicates in their country and are infamous for showing their victims no mercy.
All former athletes, the Wrestlers found alternative sources of income to maintain their luxurious lifestyles after the collapse of the communist regime in the late ’80s.
They first took over motels along Bulgaria’s international highways, then began trading in hard currencies, prostitution, armed robbery and racketeering.
This week, the Sunday Times established that Staykov — described by South African police as one of their most wanted men — has opened two new companies in Bulgaria since fleeing South Africa.
On May 10, he registered a transport company called Alfa Star in Bourgas, near the Bulgarian seaside town of Nesebar, where he was born.
Just 16 days later, he registered Omega Star Limited in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. He has a partner, Krasimir Vasilev Gradinarov, in this business which operates from flat number 124 on the second floor of a residential block of flats in the Borovo district.
In South Africa, Staykov set up units countrywide with more than 60 members. He paid waitresses and supermarket cashiers to steal credit card details using a matchbox-sized reading device known as a “skimmer”.
The details were then downloaded onto computers and new credit cards were made.
Staykov used “runners”, mainly South Africans, who he paid to go shopping for the syndicate with the fake cards.
Based in small groups throughout the country, they bought only luxury goods such as designer lounge and dining-room suites, plasma TV screens, cameras, stereos, paintings, cellphones and computers.
The goods were sent to Durban and shipped to Bulgaria, where they were resold on the black market and through Staykov’s businesses.
Staykov, who based himself in Edenvale, east of Johannesburg, operated with a fake South African passport, using it to open accounts with First National Bank, American Express, Nedbank, Absa and Diners Club.
His girlfriend, Tonka Panayotova Zotkova, 35, who disappeared shortly after his escape from the court, is wanted for questioning.
The police formed a task team to investigate the syndicate in 2003 after the Standard Bank, Absa, FNB and Nedbank found that Bulgarians were involved in most of the credit-card fraud in the country.
Japie Krige, chairman of the South African Card Fraud Forum said: “This syndicate was a major threat to the banks as they were losing millions in legal claims from card-holders who were being charged for stuff they never bought.”
Krige said it was now estimated that on average 7.5 cents of every R100 spent on a credit card was fraudulent.
The head of the investigation into the syndicate, Superintendent Pieter Croucamp, of the Johannesburg Commercial Crimes Unit, said this week that Staykov was one of the most wanted men in South Africa.
Croucamp said he would this week contact Interpol to help in the search for the Bulgarian. If Staykov was caught and brought back to South Africa he would probably face hundreds of charges of credit-card fraud and forgery involving millions.
Croucamp said that the initial investigation in 2003 found that most of the Bulgarians who had until then been arrested for fraud had pleaded guilty and escaped with fines or suspended sentences.
“Once out, they were free to continue with credit card fraud all over again.”
Since the task team had been formed, 56 people, including 13 Bulgarian nationals and 43 South Africans, had been arrested and jailed, Croucamp said. Some of the Bulgarians had been deported.
He said that most of the convicted syndicate members were runners for Staykov.
Police have seized two containers, filled with goods worth millions, that were to be shipped to Bulgaria.
The first container, registered in girlfriend Zotkova’s name, was confiscated at Staykov’s Edenvale home in July 2003.
The second container was recovered last year at the Durban harbour, about to be shipped to Bulgaria.
Among the goods found in the containers were furniture and electronic equipment.
The furniture in the containers was exactly like that used by the couple in their house.
The containers, as well as a dark-blue BMW X5 SUV and a BMW 325i sedan are now in the possession of the Asset Forfeiture Unit.
The police officer believed to have helped Staykov escape from the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court has been suspended without pay and faces a disciplinary hearing.
This week, one of Staykov’s alleged Cape Town bosses, Pancho Panev, alias Americo Manuel Torres Da Silva, appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on 109 charges of credit-card fraud and forgery.
Panev is accused of going on a two-day shopping spree in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront and Canal Walk shopping centres, spending R209000.
He was captured on surveillance cameras while buying a top-of-the range laptop computer, an expensive video camera, jewellery and a cellphone.
Panev’s wife, Hristina, was last year sentenced to 12 months in jail for credit-card fraud. After completing part of her sentence she was deported to Bulgaria.
Panev this week pleaded not guilty to all charges.
He represented himself in court and during evidence he asked witnesses how they could identify him as the shopper they had seen three years ago.
“You have not changed at all. The only thing that is different is that you now have a beard. Your cheekbones, nose and accent are the same,” Dewaldt Herman, a salesman at a computer shop at Canal Walk told the court.
The case has been postponed.