Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Card Sharks 'Skimmers' Becoming More Sophisticated in Stealing Account Information

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Card Sharks 'Skimmers' Becoming More Sophisticated in Stealing Account Information

Article excerpt

In nature, skimmers are graceful seabirds that fly close to the water, skimming the surface with their open bills to ambush their prey.

In the financial world, skimmers are devices that thieves attach to card readers at ATMs or gas pumps to steal account numbers from debit and credit cards.

While not as lethal as the seabirds, they are just as stealthy.

"In almost all cases, your transaction will go through," said Eric Zahren, special agent in charge at the Pittsburgh field office for the U.S. Secret Service. "Everything will seem fine, but that doesn't mean your data wasn't stolen."

Criminals use the data from the magnetic stripe, along with personal identification numbers captured by tiny hidden cameras, to make counterfeit cards and drain people's accounts or run up big credit card bills.

It's a growing problem aided by increasingly sophisticated equipment that thieves place over legitimate card readers making it hard for customers to detect any tampering.

"It's a crime that's on the upswing nationally, and we've seen our share here in the Pittsburgh region," Mr. Zahren said.

Big payoffs are the main attraction. While bank heists net an average of $3,000 to $4,000, a single card skimmer averages 10 times that amount, or some $30,000 to $40,000, said Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy at the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C.

The pirated card data are stored on the skimmers, which thieves later retrieve, or it's transmitted wirelessly to another location.

The devices are custom made to match individual machines so they are virtually undetectable.

"They look like they are part of the machine," Mr. Johnson said.

Automated teller machines and gas pumps are favorite spots for card skimmers because of the high volume of transactions and because thieves using glue or tape can attach the devices unnoticed.

Other targets include self-checkout aisles at supermarkets and other stores. At restaurants, servers may use handheld skimmers in back rooms after customers hand over their cards to pay the bill.

Neither the Secret Service nor the bankers association were able to provide dollar estimates of total losses attributed to card skimming, but both said it was a growing and increasingly sophisticated crime.

"There are some very smart people involved in these criminal enterprises," Mr. Zahren said. "Some of the techniques involved are very advanced."

Banks generally don't like to talk about the problem for fear of scaring away customers or compromising their security measures. A spokesman for PNC Bank, the Pittsburgh region's biggest bank, declined comment for this story.

The bankers association is working on a database that would alert banks to skimming activity in their area, Mr. Johnson said. The system is expected to go live sometime in the first half of this year, he said. …

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