A 31-year-old Fairfax County man pleaded guilty in federal court here yesterday to using a stolen Visa credit card to get a total of $140,130, all in $10 and $20 bills, from three area automatic teller machines during a single weekend last October.
The withdrawals, which represent the largest fraud ever committed against Visa using automatic teller machines, were in each case approved by Visa's regular merchant authorization system because its 10-year-old computer program "had not anticipated that such a situation would arise," said a company official with knowledge of its security procedures.
"Man got bit by machine," the official said, noting that since the incident the authorization system had been changed to recognize such multiple transactions and cut them off after a specific number.
According to court records and law enforcement officials, Michael Anthony Caputo of 7901 Wolf Run Hills Rd., Fairfax Station, used the card more than 400 times Oct. 19 and 20, usually receiving $300.
John Magaw, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Washington field office, said it was unclear how Caputo obtained the card -- which belonged to John D. Schrott Jr. of McLean -- and the personal identification number needed to make it work in the automatic teller machine.
Remote cameras photographed Caputo, often smiling broadly, as he made repeated transactions at First American Bank teller machines at 417 Sixth St. NW and 1300 Connecticut Ave. NW and at an unspec- ified machine in Northern Virginia. Series of photographs show lines of customers forming as Caputo used the machines, show him moving to the rear of the lines to allow others to use the machines, and show him then returning for additional transactions, according to officials.
In some photographs, Caputo is shown with bags of money, officials said.
Schrott, who could not be reached for comment, told Secret Service agents that he had last used the card, and two others, on Oct. 4 in Wrightsville, Pa., and could not recall what happened to them after that, officials said. Magaw said the investigation is continuing and could lead to other suspects.
Caputo's last transaction occurred at 11:55 p.m. Oct. 20, a Sunday, apparently because he believed that the authorization program would change at midnight and might no longer permit the withdrawals, an official said.
On Oct. 23, a fraud investigator for United Virginia Bank, which issued Schrott's card, was notified of a "possible problem" with the card.
Magaw said Caputo was identified after bank surveillance photographs were posted in a number of local police agencies, including the check and fraud section of the D.C. police department.
A few days after the posting, Officer Russell Stanford of the District's Repeat Offenders Project was at police headquarters, noticed a photograph and identified the man pictured as one he had interviewed several days before in an unrelated matter.
Caputo was arrested on a warrant Dec. 20 and charged under a 1984 law that greatly increased the previous penalties for such fraud. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $280,260, double the amount of money he obtained, when he is sentenced by U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant on April 29.
Under the plea agreement outlined by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert McDaniel, Caputo will plead guilty to a federal drug paraphernalia charge. A misdemeanor drug charge against him was dropped in D.C. Superior Court.
In addition, McDaniel said he and Caputo's attorney, Peter Greenspun, had agreed that Caputo would return "certain monies," which sources said include money, paid in $20 bills, posted as bond in an unrelated case in Fairfax County.
Described by officials as having a history of drug problems, Caputo had been in prison since his arrest here but was released yesterday on his recognizance after agreeing to enter a drug treatment program.
Neil Cotiaux, spokesman for United Virginia Bank, said his bank did not wish to comment on specifics of the case because it was still under investigation. Under federal law, credit card holders are liable for up to $50 in improper charges to their accounts. He pointed out that United Virginia Bank machines are not linked to the Visa authorization system and are programmed to cut off withdrawals after a certain dollar amount is reached.
After the incident, according to the Visa official, the organization issued a security alert to all of its member banks, warning them to modify their authorization systems. He said he did not want to give details of the security lapse because he feared that other credit organizations might still have a program similar to Visa's old one.
"The transactions were authorized," he said, "not because of the cleverness or smartness of Mr. Caputo but because of a glitch in the system."