Threat of credit card ‘skimming’ rises during holidays

South Florida shoppers beware. While you’re looking for gifts, criminals are on the prowl for your banking information.

Credit card “skimming” — the use of electronic gadgets to steal credit and debit card information — is not new in South Florida, but it’s on the rise, especially around the holidays, said U.S. Secret Service agent James Porter in Miami. Porter specializes in electronic crimes.

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“People are just making more purchases around this time of year, and with the increase in credit card activity, there are often more chances for skimming,” Porter said.

With the stolen credit and debit card numbers, thieves make about $8 billion in fraudulent purchases each year, the Secret Service said. The number of skimming cases has risen by 10 percent each year since 2008, according to the Secret Service. The agency doesn’t keep South Florida statistics.

More than 3 million people have been victims of skimming at ATMs, losing an average of $1,000 per person, according to the ADT Security Services website. The company manufactures anti-skimming devices.

“South Florida is one of the top areas for this kind of fraud, for obvious reasons,” Porter said. “We’re a tourism hot spot. Where there’s a lot of economic activity, there’s fraudulent activity.”

Electronic devices that take, or “skim,” card numbers can be placed inside automated teller machines, gas station pumps, at check-out stations in stores or carried by hand to swipe cards.

The devices aren’t visible to most users because they’re inside the ATMs and pumps. Mihai Arnautu, from Delray Beach, was arrested in July 2010 after surveillance videos showed him tampering with bank ATMs in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

He got $45,000 with the card information skimmed by the devices, the Palm Beach Post reported.

Omar Fonseca, of Miami, faces 18 counts of identity theft, based on information he took from hundreds of skimmed credit and debit cards over three months in 2010, according to court documents from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Federal prosecutors want him to repay more than $42,000.

Any place you swipe a card to pay is vulnerable to a skimming attack, Porter said. The devices can be bought easily on the Internet and are programmed to read and store credit card information.

Devices placed inside ATMs include cameras that can be positioned to record a user typing a PIN code, he said. And some devices are handheld, making it easy for clerks or waiters to pass a card through their skimmer before swiping it for the legitimate purchase.

Devices can capture data from up to 2,000 cards, according to ADT Security Services’ website.

“If you want to be sure not to be a victim, you can always pay inside at a gas station, or go inside a bank to get cash,” Porter said. “There is a thin line between convenience and security. People need to weigh that concern on their own.”, 954-356-4528 or Twitter @SunBizGriffin


How to protect your cards from skimming

At an ATM: Does the equipment on the ATM look normal and legitimate? If there is a card reader on the machine, give it a slight tug. Don’t use it if a piece falls off. Cover the keypad when you type your PIN code. Withdraw cash from inside a bank if possible.

At a restaurant: Keep your eyes on your card. Try to position your seat so you can see the area where the employee scans your card.

At a store: Check the point-of-sale device for anything that looks unusual. A camera lens or a device as small as a USB thumb drive could be a sign of a skimming device. You can always ask the clerk type in your card’s numbers.

At a gas station: If it looks like the pump has been tampered with, go inside and ask the store clerk to swipe your card.

Other tips: Check your financial statements. Report suspicious charges immediately to a store manager and law enforcement. Credit card liability is limited to $50. Debit card liability depends on your bank and when the theft is reported.