Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cops hunt tech-savvy thieves -

Police are still on the lookout for tech-savvy thieves that got away with approximately $60,000 from a Bank of America on Rockville Pike after attaching a skimming device to the ATM.

On Saturday, Aug. 2, a 42-year-old Rockville man discovered a light cover to a Bank of America ATM lying on the counter with a small camera taped to the inside.

Montgomery County police officers said that they believe that the thieves placed the camera in a location to record customers as they entered their personal identification numbers. Police said they later found a skimmer device that was also placed on the ATM. The device, which is generally placed over the card reader, records credit and debit card numbers of customers that use that ATM.

Detectives determined that the devices were in place for approximately just more than four hours on Saturday afternoon from 2 p.m. until 6:21 p.m.

Any customers affected by scams like the one that occurred on Aug. 2 are protected from any fraudulent charges. However, Bank of America spokesperson Nicole Nastacie said that it is absolutely vital that customers report anything suspicious. The bank also said that they are working closely with detectives to identify and arrest the thieves; however, as of Wednesday, Aug. 13 no arrests had been made.

The financial industry and automatic teller machine manufacturers have for years tried to thwart thieves and diminish the technique of skimming by making various software and hardware measures but still some thieves do get through the safety walls.

There are approximately 400,000 ATMs in the United States that generate approximately $1 trillion in cash to consumers each year and "when you look at it against $1 trillion it's a pretty small percentage of a very large number," said Kurt Helwig, president of the Electronic Funds Transfer Association.

Mark Smith, senior VAR manager for Triton ATMs, said that new ATMs in general are not a problem. In fact "most of the problems lie with old ATMS because they have an easy card reader to mock," said Smith. Newer ATMS are designed so that they are not easy to create molds in which skimming devices can be hidden and easily placed over existing ATM card readers.

Also, newer ATMs are designed with more sensitive software that detects unknown signals and are programmed to automatically shut down. But Smith warned that ATMs aren't the only places in which skimmers can be placed. Skimming can also happen in restaurants and convenience stores.

Skimming devices aren't exactly easy to find. According to police and ATM experts, skimmers cannot be found at your local electronic hardware store. But they aren't exactly inaccessible; with some research police said that they could be found on the Internet. But they aren't cheap, some costing about $3,000. "It's organized crime. It's not an off-the-shelf item," said Smith. "Usually there is some cohesion between a bank employee and a criminal."

Even though some thieves are still able to get away with $60,000, Helwig said, "You don't see the large scale anymore. It's not something that I would tell consumers to worry about."

Helwig said the fact that skimmers are not easy to find or cheap says a lot about the improvements that the financial industry has made on fraud prevention. "This is an industry that invests a lot of money into fraud prevention but we aren't going to do away with fraud. People will spend the time to figure out the vulnerabilities."

As the case in Rockville Pike proved, paying attention when making a quick ATM visit can be very helpful and can help safeguard your finances, said police and experts.

By Bailey Quinonez

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