Since the mid 1980’s, the use of debit cards has increased steadily across the United States making the paper check all but obsolete. By 2013, sixty-seven percent of all retail purchases are expected to be made with a debit card. Part of what makes these cards so popular is the ease of immediate withdrawal of funds from your bank account, along with eliminating the guesswork of when a check will clear. Banks are finding new ways to make the use of debit cards more convenient for customers. With this convenience also comes an increased chance of theft or fraud.
One of the most common ways for a suspect to obtain debit card information to use at a later time is called “skimming.” This process involves scanning a debit card through a card reader which in turn captures the card holder’s personal information. “Skimming” is typically accomplished in one of three ways. One way is to simply install a phony card reader on an Automated Teller Machine (ATM) or gas pump card reader. When the card is swiped for a legitimate purchase, the personal information on the card is then either held in the memory of the phony device, or wirelessly transmitted to a nearby laptop computer. The suspect then retrieves the card holder’s personal information and uses it to make online purchases or merely duplicates the debit card for use in retail stores.
Another method of skimming is accomplished by installing a “piggyback” device in the wiring of a machine. This is done mainly to gas pumps and is easily installed internally inside the gas pump. Once a “piggyback” device is installed, the device records the data of each card that is scanned and either stores it or wirelessly transmits it to a nearby receiver. Skimming can also happen when a dishonest employee of a retail business scans your card using a separate hand held card reader prior to charging your real purchase. This equipment is readily available online and is not very costly.
The newest way for a suspect to steal your information does not require them to even have possession of your card. Many cards in use today use RFID technology which allows the user to simply wave the card near a reader to make a purchase. Unfortunately, this also allows a suspect to scan your card from a distance of up to a foot or more. Your card could be scanned even if it is in your wallet or purse. Card sleeves and special wallets are available to block these unauthorized scans.
So what can you do to protect yourself against fraud and theft? Avoid using kiosk ATM machines in small retail businesses or malls. These machines vary in design and it is difficult to recognize a piggyback or phony card reader device. Use bank ATM machines whenever possible. These machines are more frequently maintained which provides a better chance a phony device will be discovered and removed. Carefully inspect the card reader on any ATM or other retail machine you use. Look for loose fitting or cheap looking devices that do not appear to belong on the machine. If the card reader is loose and appears as though it will pull off easily, avoid using the machine and contact the operator of the machine or the police. If you use the same ATM on a regular basis, check for any obvious changes in the machine prior to scanning your card. If something appears different, contact the machine operator to see if there have been recent upgrades to the unit. If you suspect the card reader might be a skimmer, again notify the owner of the machine or the business where it is installed immediately.
When buying gas using a debit card, use the credit function rather than the pin based debit function. Fraud protection is usually better for credit based transactions. Look for small cameras or holes in the machine that have no obvious purpose. Often these cameras are installed in brochure holders stuck to the machine with double sided tape. Hold your free hand over the keypad to block the view as you enter your pin. Look for anyone who seems to be lurking in the area of the machine, especially if they have a laptop computer or a smart phone in their hands. When using your card at a retailer, make sure the card stays in your sight. Do not allow the clerk to take your card to another room or someplace where you can’t see what they are doing with your card. It may be best to use cash at restaurants to avoid letting your card out of your sight.
Be sure to check your bank and credit account statements regularly to detect any fraudulent transactions. Notify your bank, or credit card company, immediately if you suspect fraudulent activity. Any delay in reporting theft or fraud could result in the victim being held responsible for a portion of the charges. Pay particular attention to online purchases. Check your credit report at least annually and anytime there is unusual activity on your accounts. Make a report to your local police department if you are the victim of fraud. Online theft should also be reported to the FBI’s InternetCrimeComplaintCenter at www.ic3.gov
Credit and debit card fraud is big business and it costs consumers millions of dollars in higher costs and fees charged by companies to cover their losses. Keeping a sharp eye and taking some simple precautions will greatly reduce your chances of being a victim of these crimes.
Community Service Officer John Thomas is a long time resident of Temecula and is a Crime Prevention Officer with the Temecula Police Department Crime Prevention Unit. He can be reached at (951) 506-5132.