The latest technological scheme gaining traction in Northeastern Pennsylvania strikes victims where it hurts most — their bank accounts.
Credit-card skimmers are small, sometimes hard-to-recognize devices that criminals plant at gas station pumps, ATMs, self-checkouts or any unattended place that someone might swipe their credit or debit card. The devices grab your card info from the magnetic strip, either storing it to be retrieved later or sending it to the perpetrator remotely.
The stolen data is used to make fraudulent purchases either online or in stores with a counterfeit credit card. Cash also can be withdrawn when the info is taken from a debit card used at an ATM, resulting in a payday for thieves and a headache for their victims.
Some devices — ones placed on the exterior of a machine — tend to be bulky and easy to detect. But now, smaller devices more difficult to spot with the naked eye are sprouting up nationwide, according to the Better Business Bureau.
Officials with the consumer protection nonprofit say people, perhaps more than ever before, need to be more wary of schemes involving credit or debit cards. Protect your PIN, they advise. Cover the keypad with your other hand to protect your private information from any cameras in the vicinity. Periodically change the PIN number.
“Identity theft can happen to you whether you’re shopping online or at the mall, making it critical that we all take specific steps to fight both low and hi-tech ID thieves,” said Kelsey Owen, director of communications for the Better Business Bureau serving Metro Washington, D.C., and eastern Pennsylvania.
While only two cases have been reported in Luzerne County, the scheme is worth watching out for in the area, local investigators say. And though they say they haven’t encountered enough of the devices to deem them a serious problem yet, people should be vigilant when swiping their cards.
“They definitely are becoming more prevalent now — there’s no doubt about it — only because technology in general is cheaper and more readily available than before,” said Dan Lewis, a Plains Township police officer who specializes in cyber crimes.
Lewis is investigating one of the reported card skimming cases in the area: a gas station on Route 115 in the township that was struck by a criminal who planted an internal device in May. The station owner spotted the skimmer and called police, who removed the device.
The investigation remains open as authorities continue to see what data they can extract from the device that might lead them to the culprit, Lewis said.
To the average person, the skimmer was impossible to detect, he said.
“There’s no way that somebody getting gas would be able to tell that there was a skimmer there,” Lewis said.
The devices are more prevalent in Southeastern Pennsylvania, but the trend is starting to travel north, warned State Trooper Mark Keyes, who is based in Factoryville.
“People who are familiar with this technology can access a lot of accounts very quickly, remotely,” he said. “They don’t have to be here when the crime is being committed, and they return later to gather the information. It’s easy to use someone’s PIN number and account number to access a lot of different accounts, and some of those have a lot of money in them.”
Skimmers are becoming more prevalent nationwide because technology is cheaper and more readily available than ever before, officials said. Some could be Bluetooth enabled. Others have memory chips on them.
Sarah Reynolds, who filled up at a Sunoco in Wilkes-Barre, was alarmed by the thought of someone stealing her card information.
“It’s scary to think it could happen, even if you know what to look for,” she said.
In another reported case in Luzerne County, police in Wilkes-Barre Township arrested a Taco Bell employee in January for allegedly stealing credit-card information from customers for more than a month.
The employee worked at the drive-thru during that time and was caught on camera using a skimming device to copy card information when cards were handed to him by customers. He was arrested after management reviewed surveillance footage and saw him swiping the cards, according to police. Charges are pending.
The employee was able to copy 10 cards in just one day, police said.
Wilkes-Barre Township police, despite dozens of banks and retailers in their jurisdiction, said they haven’t encountered any card skimmers outside of the Taco Bell incident.
Other cases, however, have been reported in Lackawanna and Schuylkill counties.
While skimmers have been around for years, the technology to steal credit account information continues to improve, and devices have become smaller and harder to detect, said Owen, the Better Business Bureau official. Before withdrawing money from an ATM or filling up at the pump, bureau officials advise that consumers to take a minute to inspect the machine.
Once someone has swiped their card through a skimmer, it’s often too late. Their account information is sent to the scammer, leaving the consumer vulnerable to theft. Thieves might also use hidden cameras to record the consumer’s hand movements to obtain their PIN.
Chris Scalese, president of Fortune Financial Group in Dunmore, said having your card information compromised can spiral into a bigger problem.
“Just having charges on your credit card is the least of your worries because all the credit-card companies these days are good with protecting you from fraud, and if you attest that you didn’t make those charges they’re going to take them off your card,” he said. “But if it’s not detected and these thieves go and damage your credit report, that’s where it’s a long-term problem where it could take months or even years to fix.”
To protect card info from skimmers, the Better Business Bureau advises consumers to avoid using ATMs in poorly lit or low-trafficked areas. Look for new or suspiciously placed cameras and unusual signage. Walk away and use another ATM if something appears out of the ordinary, they say.
Even the most careful person can fall victim to skimmers, so the bureau encourages consumers to pay attention to their bank statements.
Keep a close eye out for suspicious charges on the itemized breakdown of your accounts. Through your financial institution, you also can sign up for alerts that will notify you when certain types of transactions occur.
Finally, report any fraudulent activity to your bank as soon as you discover it. Consumer protections for debit and credit cards vary but depend largely upon when the fraudulent activity is reported.