A total of 111 people have been indicted in an identity-theft scheme that originated largely in the back rooms of Queens restaurants, the authorities said on Friday, and then mushroomed into a worldwide network of counterfeiters, hackers, fences and thieves who made off with an estimated $13 million in fraudulent purchases.
The investigation, dubbed Operation Swiper, uncovered ties to criminal enterprises in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the authorities said.
The Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, said on Friday that the size of the identity-theft operation took him aback. “This is by far the largest and certainly amongst the most sophisticated identity-theft credit card fraud cases that any of us have every seen,” he said.
Detectives rounded up 75 suspects and are searching for 21 others, including four who are believed to have fled to Russia, according to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. He added that 15 people suspected in the plot were already in custody.
The charges involve defrauding thousands of people over the course of 16 months, from May 2010 until this September. Often, the police said, the criminals obtained victims’ credit card information from restaurant employees who used hand-held skimming machines. Overseas hackers and confederates working in banks also played a role in stealing personal information, they said.
Other members of the ring then forged credit cards using the stolen account information and went on weekly shopping sprees in California, Chicago, Texas and other places. Apple electronics were favorite purchases, as well as designer clothes, including Louis Vuitton and Gucci. The goods were then fenced and the cash pocketed, the police said.
Some members of the ring resorted to more old-fashioned crime, the authorities said, targeting a cargo shipment at Kennedy International Airport for theft, and planning to rob a bank in Forest Hills, Queens — both plots, the police said, were tracked and disrupted.
The police and prosecutors said that early in their investigation, they received no tips from credit card companies or retail businesses even though balances on stolen accounts were skyrocketing.
Deputy Inspector Gregory T. Antonsen, the commander of the Police Department’s Identity Theft Squad, said that law enforcement had been urging the business community to take greater security measures. He highlighted the deterrent value of identity chips implanted in credit cards that are common in Europe.
Mr. Brown, the Queens district attorney, said that credit companies were “putting too much money into marketing and not enough into security.” He said that the companies, “would rather take the losses” than spend on security measures designed to avert theft.
Some of the suspects spent their ill-gotten gains on trips to luxury villas in Puerto Rico and drove around in Porsches, the authorities said.
“They frequently vacationed in Miami — they were all scheduled to go there on Friday,” Inspector Antonsen said at a news conference at Police Headquarters on Friday. “Unfortunately they are in Central Booking in jail.”
He paused, then clarified whose misfortune he was referring to: “For them. Not for us.”