Thursday, October 30, 2008

'Catch me if you can,' said student behind biggest chip and PIN fraud - - 29 Sep 2008

The computer mastermind behind Britain's biggest counterfeit credit card factory was jailed yesterday.

Anup Patel had amassed almost £2 million after details of 19,000 cards and PINs were stolen from British users. He set up a network of couriers to deliver batches of fake cards abroad to exploit a loophole in the chip-and-PIN banking security system.

While still studying computer sciences at a London university, the 30-year-old was developing state-of-the-art technology secretly to harvest customers' private bank details.

Petrol stations around the M25, among others, were believed to have been used to cash in on the large number of people using payment cards to buy fuel.

Fake payment terminals with hidden data readers, and secret cameras, often drilled into the ceiling, had been used to record bank details and PINs. That information was used to make bogus cards at Patel's factory and laboratory, which were found when police raided rented units at Croydon House Business Centre in South London in 2006.

Motorists discovered that they had been the victims of fraud when their banks contacted them to check whether they had withdrawn cash abroad or when the cardholders spotted suspicious transactions on their bank statements.

After an investigation that involved detectives tracing criminal gang links to Thailand, Eastern Europe and Turkey, Patel was jailed for six years for conspiracy to steal and conspiracy to defraud. Anthony Thomas, 45, a father of two who acted as a “mule” delivering the bogus cards to countries that do not use chips on cards, was jailed for two years for the same offences. The men will serve half their jail terms before being considered for parole. Another man is being held in Thailand on suspicion of being linked to the scheme.

Only now can The Times reveal that Patel, while on the run, had taunted Detective Sergeant Simon Russen, the senior officer hunting him, by comparing his criminal computer wizardry to the famous con artist Frank Abagnale Jr, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can.

In a two-minute, late-night phone call, Patel joked that if he was DiCaprio, it meant that the detective was Tom Hanks, the actor who played the FBI agent. He then said: “Catch me if you can” before hanging up.

However, unlike Abagnale, who remained undetected for five years, Patel handed himself in to police after just two weeks when he realised that his fellow conspirators had been arrested at British airports and in Thailand.

Judge Nicholas Ainley, sentencing the pair, said that the City of London Police's cheque and credit card unit had uncovered an “industrial-scale factory” when they raided Patel's business centre premises.

Police believe that the gang amassed almost £2 million before the raid in October 2006 after an intelligence tip-off. Officers seized thousands of magnetic strips and blank plastic cards, a library of 19,000 skimmed card and PIN details, holograms, card printers, corrupted payment terminals and £20,000 in cash.

Mr Russen said it was clear they had uncovered the headquarters of a large-scale counterfeit operation.

“They were operating at the top end of credit card criminality, from manufacturing the cards to obtaining money internationally through ATM machines.” He said that Patel “used his high-tech knowledge to great effect”, adding that he was “striving to beat the chip-and-PIN system”.

It remains largely unclear how the terminals were placed at the garages or Patel or Thomas's involvement with that part of the operation.

Patel appears to have shunned the wealth that he was said to have created, instead remaining fascinated by the technology he was developing.

The cards recovered, police believe, suggest that the gang members could have made up to £16 million had they not been stopped.

More than 50 computer gadgets - exhibits in the case - were strewn across Court 1 of Croydon Crown Court. The jury of eight men and four women returned unanimous verdicts after less than two hours of deliberations.

David Povall, for the prosecution, revealed that Patel, of Thornton Heath, South London, had been jailed for 2 years for a credit card fraud in France ten years ago. Thomas, of Clapham, South London, had 65 previous convictions, mainly for petty crime.

Last year £144.3 million was obtained illegally by those able to beat the chip-and-PIN system introduced in 2002. The system became mandatory in 2006 for the 144 million payments cards in Britain.

While fake card fraud has been cut in Britain - £78.2 million was stolen in 2005 compared with £31.1 million in 2007 - organised gangs have begun shipping counterfeit cards to countries that do not require cards to have chips.

Only £18.2 million was lost abroad in 2005, compared with £113.2 million last year.

The use of cloned details has also increased fraud on the internet, telephone and mail order. In 2005, £183.2 million was stolen. This rose to £290.5 million in 2007.

However, the fraudulent use of lost or stolen cards has dropped (in 2005 £89 million was stolen, falling £56.2 million last year) and the interception of cards in the post has been cut (in 2005, £40 million was stolen, falling to £10.2 million in 2007).

High street transactions involving fake cards have also fallen, with the £135.9 million stolen in 2005, dropping to £73 million last year.

While chip-and-PIN technology is common in Europe, few countries use the more secure system. Notably, America predominantly uses the magnetic swipe and signature system. Outside Europe few countries have adopted chip-and-PIN. Those that have include South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Brazil and Mexico.

Last night a 44-year-old British man, another alleged courier, was being held in Thailand in connection with the gang. He was arrested at Luton airport while trying to board a flight to Istanbul with fake cards and carrying files of PIN codes.

He fled while on bail but was seized in Phuket after withdrawing cash illegally. He came to the attention of the authorities after he was repeatedly photographed wearing a pollution face mask while removing money from cash machines.

Patel, who was born in India and came to Britain at the age of 2, obtained a 2:2 in computer sciences from Kingston University in 2006.

During his telephone call to Detective Sergeant Russen he said that he wanted to be like Abagnale who, by the age of 19, had posed as a pilot and cashed Pan Am payroll cheques worth more than £5 million. Yesterday, neither of the men showed any emotion as they were jailed.

A spokeswoman for Apacs, the company that represents the payments service industry and played a key role in ensuring that chip-and-PIN was introduced throughout Britain at a cost of £1 billion, said that the system had saved millions of pounds. She also claimed that counterfeit card fraud would reduce as countries such as the United States were forced to adopt it.

“Without the security benefits provided by chip-and-PIN, counterfeit and lost and stolen card fraud would undoubtedly have continued to grow unchecked every year,” she said

By Steve Bird

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