Experts urge vigilance as card skimming scams grow on LI

Joseph Nappi proceeds to cut up his new

Joseph Nappi proceeds to cut up his new TD banking card on May 27, 2014. (Credit: Johnny Milano)

Joseph Nappi, an Internet marketing executive who lives in Old Bethpage, was at work in Manhattan in March when he got an alert that his checking account balance was low.

When Nappi investigated, he found that thieves had drained $1,900 from his bank account. Police believe Nappi, 31, had become another victim of what experts say is a fast-growing financial crime on Long Island and around the nation: bank card skimming.

In it, a thief installs a fake card reader, usually over the legitimate card reader slot on an automated teller machine or over the card reader for the door to a lobby containing an ATM -- or both. The fake readers steal the data from cards' magnetic strips, either storing it or electronically transmitting it so the thief never has to return to remove the skimmer with its stored data -- and possibly face capture.


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The stolen data is then encoded into a new card.

Often, a tiny hidden video camera is used to record the card owner's PIN. Sometimes, instead of a camera, a fake keypad overlay is placed directly on the real keypad to record the PIN.

Statistics on the extent of the fraud are hard to come by, with a variety of law enforcement agencies from the U.S. Secret Service to local police departments trying to stop it.

But at the FICO Card Alert Service of San Jose, California, which monitors millions of transactions for clients such as banks, banking fraud product manager John Buzzard says hundreds of skimming devices are discovered nationally each year and the number of incidents logged by his company -- proprietary information -- rose by 48 percent last year from 2012. "We're seeing steady increases," he said. "It's a feeding frenzy for criminals."

Det. Sgt. Mark Pulaski, commanding officer of the Suffolk County Police Fugitive/Identity Theft Section, says he believes authorities often are not notified of many skimming incidents, which are quickly handled by the card issuers, with the clients made whole and the devices removed. "It is by far one of the most unreported crimes out there," he said.

Experts urge consumers to carefully monitor their bank statements for unauthorized withdrawals from their accounts. "You've got to check every month -- check your banking statement," said Det. Sgt. Richard Harasym, commanding officer of the Nassau County Police Crimes Against Property Squad.

Experts also warn consumers to be alert for signs that an ATM or other card reader has been tampered with. They urge those who believe their card has been skimmed to contact the police and their banks immediately and to notify entities such as telephone and insurance companies that are authorized to automatically debit payments from consumers' accounts.

When Nappi got the alert about his low balance, from financial tracking service Mint.com, he checked his TD Bank account online and noticed a total of four withdrawals, on March 13 and 14, from two ATMs in Manhattan that he said he has never used. "I knew I hadn't spent the money," he said.

He reported it to Nassau County police in March. Last week, Harasym said investigators aren't sure where Nappi's card was skimmed. Police removed a skimming device from Nappi's Plainview bank in March, after it was discovered during routine servicing, but Harasym said that whoever installed it never obtained any of the data it captured because the device was found before the thieves could retrieve it. He said Nappi might have been the victim of a skimmer at another bank. A TD bank spokeswoman last week referred questions to the police.

Arrests at banks, mallPolice have made a number of arrests of skimming thieves on Long Island.

This month Suffolk police arrested a man for installing skimmers in Astoria Federal Savings branches in Kings Park and Huntington Station, both augmented with cameras. "You would never have noticed it," Pulaski said. Police said the scheme netted $9,700 from 13 victims and compromised 25 different bank accounts.

Pulaski said Astoria noticed the defendant on video installing the device. The bank alerted police, who conducted surveillance and caught the suspect when he went to remove the device.

On May 22, Nassau County police arrested two men at Roosevelt Field mall and charged them with conducting a skimming operation there that netted $9,000 between Dec. 14 and April 8.

Bank ATMs aren't the only targets. On May 20, a Queens man was sentenced to up to 6 years in prison for his role in a skimming scam last fall involving Long Island Rail Road ticket vending machines. Nassau County prosecutors said the man used tiny hidden cameras as well. His wife got 9 months in jail in April for her role in the scheme, and two other defendants last month each were sentenced to 1 year in jail.

Prosecutors said Metropolitan Transportation Authority police caught them retrieving skimmer devices and the cameras from the Sea Cliff LIRR station.

In March a Queens woman working as a waitress at a restaurant in Westbury was charged with using a skimming device to obtain card information that was then passed on to three alleged accomplices, who also were arrested.

Skimming devices are growing more sophisticated, said a report on cybercrime issued in April by Verizon Enterprise Solutions of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, a consultancy affiliated with the communications company. "While some are clunky -- seemingly homemade and easy to spot, others are so realistic in appearance that they are virtually invisible to the end user," the report said.

Bank ATMs are, by far, the most popular location for skimmers, Verizon said. Another is gasoline station pumps where card holders can make purchases without entering the building.

In January, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced the indictments of 13 people for swiping credit card information from gas pumps in Texas, Georgia and South Carolina, then using the data to steal more than $2 million at ATMs and banks in Manhattan. Vance called skimming "the fastest growing crime in the country."

Gas station owners warnedKevin Beyer, president of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association, said the group has notified its members to be alert to tampering of their pumps to hide bogus card readers behind the front panel, something fairly easy to do with widely available keys. "We let people know to be careful -- look at your pumps," Beyer said. Harasym, commander of Nassau's Crimes Against Property Squad, said some retailers have installed better locks on their pumps so incidents of gas station skimming now are less common.

Skimming is just one of many ways thieves steal personal information, as noted on the Nassau and Suffolk police department websites. Others include home burglaries, stealing mail and wallets and poking through residential garbage for papers that should have been shredded.

Another is hacking -- believed responsible for one of the largest data breaches in recent memory, which compromised the accounts of millions of Target customers.

In April, the department store said it would switch its credit cards from the current technology -- which stores information on a magnetic strip on the back of a card -- to a new "embedded chip" technology, where information is stored in a computer chip inside the card.

Experts think the growing use of such advanced cards should cut down on skimming. Some actually believe the recent surge in skimming stems from international thieves scrambling to beat the widespread use of embedded chips.

"I believe [the new technology] will help," Suffolk's Det. Sgt. Pulaski said. But he doesn't see the new cards as a panacea. Unfortunately, he said, criminals have shown the ability to find ways around new crime-fighting technology.How to reduce the risk of being skimmed at an ATM:

Be suspicious of any physical changes at a machine you routinely use or at the door to the lobby containing it.

Be alert for anything unusual in the appearance of an ATM keyboard, gas pump or other card reader, in particular any loose, crooked, damaged or scratched component or adhesive tape residue indicating a skimmer might have been placed there.

When entering your PIN, hold the other hand over the keypad to block the view of any hidden cameras.

Try to use ATMs inside buildings, with less access for criminals installing skimmers.

Be particularly wary of ATMs in tourist areas -- often targets for skimmers.

Review your bank statements and credit reports regularly for unauthorized activity.

If you believe your card has been skimmed:

Report it to your bank, which will issue you a new card with a new account number.

Report it to the local police and the Federal Trade Commission at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357), or at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

Some sources suggest also forwarding a copy of the police report to the three major credit reporting entities to place fraud alerts on your records: Equifax, 800-525-6285, www.equifax .com; Experian, 888-397-3742, www.experian.com; Trans Union, 800-680-7289, www.tuc.com. Request credit reports from all three.

If you have arranged certain payments to be automatically charged to or debited from your account (your phone bill, insurance premium, etc.) notify those companies immediately, and when you get your new account info provide it to them.

If there are any late fees, bounced check charges or other kinds of charges resulting from the skimming, contact the entity that assessed them, explain the situation and ask for them to be removed. Usually you can work those things out, although you might be asked to file a copy of the police report or fill out an affidavit.

Sources: U.S. Secret Service, FBI, Suffolk County Police Department, Nassau County District Attorney's office, Consumer Federation of America, TD Bank.

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