ATM Skimming on the Rise

There is a new trend amongst money-hungry criminals known as ATM skimming — when debit-card information is illegally recorded and used by thieves. Though it is rare in the United States, a recent case in Boston illustrates officials' concern that ATM skimming is growing.

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Criminals are getting more sophisticated about snooping on ATMs. ATM skimming is when debit card information is stolen while the customer's using the machine. NPR's Chris Arnold reports now from the Boston area where crooks have been skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars from bank customers.

CHRIS ARNOLD reporting:

The Bank of America ATM machine on South Willow Road in Manchester, New Hampshire, sits in the middle of a busy parking lot at the mall. It's one of those free-standing little glass ATM buildings where you have to stick your card in to get inside.

Detective DAN RIVARD (Manchester Police Department): It's heavily traveled street here, a lot of businesses, restaurants.

ARNOLD: Manchester Police Detective Dan Rivard says dozens of people had their debt card information stolen here recently by thieves using a magnetic card reader and a little hidden camera.

Det. RIVARD: The reader actually was installed right here on top of the ATM unlocking device.

ARNOLD: Detective Rivard points to the little medal slot on the outside of the door where customers slide their cards in. He says the perpetrators piggybacked their card reader on top of the real card reader so a customer's card would actually get read by both.

All right. So if I just take out my ATM card here, could you just, like, show me with my card...

Det. RIVARD: Yeah.

ARNOLD: ...here how it works?

Det. RIVARD: Yeah. What happens is the customer, they walk up to the stand-alone ATM. The first thing is you're going to unlock the door. So you use your own card and you unlock the door. It allows you entry into the ATM, but now they don't know that their card information has been recorded. So then they continue on with their business and to the ATM, walk over to the machine. What normally happens is some sort of spy camera that's installed within the ATM location, it records the customer, now a victim. It records their PIN information that they're punching into the machine.

ARNOLD: Rivard says the thieves often sit in a nearby parking lot, say in a van, recording the card-swiped data and the video feed from the camera into a laptop computer. Then they use equipment that you can easily buy over the Internet to make duplicate ATM cards, writing the PIN number on each one. After getting a stack of cards, they start withdrawing money from other ATMs.

Ms. LAURA MADDEN: I received a call from my bank and they were wondering if I had been making any unusually large withdrawals from my account.

ARNOLD: Forty-nine-year-old Laura Madden works at a banquet hall in Manchester. She says one evening her bank called her because someone was using an ATM machine just outside Boston to pull out a lot of money from her accounts.

Ms. MADDEN: So within the course of about six minutes, $1,900 was taken from my accounts. I couldn't believe it was happening. And then, I mean, I literally was shaking when I hung up and my first thought is, `That money is gone, $2,000 gone.'

ARNOLD: Actually, though, her bank, Citizens Bank, refunded all of the stolen money. Banks do reimburse customers in most of these cases which have been reported from New York to California to Florida. Banking industry groups in the US, though, downplay the problem of ATM skimming, saying it only amounts to a tiny fraction of ATM transactions, but that's not the case in other countries.

Mr. DAVID GOSNELL (Editor, ATM&Debit News): Fraud losses are far higher in Canada.

ARNOLD: David Gosnell is the editor of ATM&Debit News. He says these kinds of debit card losses are 15 times greater per capita in Canada and they're also much higher in the UK. He says skimming has just caught on there a lot more. As a result, those countries are implementing a new, more secure ATM card system with encrypted computer chips on the cards. As those go into effect, Gosnell says organized crime groups in Canada will turn their sights south.

Mr. GOSNELL: The criminal gangs will and are as we speak attacking the electronic payment system in the United States.

ARNOLD: And in a skimming case in the Boston region, a suspect indicted earlier this month by a federal grand jury was actually picked up by the US Border Patrol on the Canadian border. The man, Ioan Emil Codarcea, a Romanian national, was traveling in a van with a group of Pakistanis trying to enter the US illegally. He was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud. His connection to the Pakistanis is unclear, but authorities believe Codarcea is part of a organized crime group operating in Canada and now reaching into the US. Manchester Police Detective Dan Rivard.

Det. RIVARD: That's based on information that we received from the Canadian authorities, that they were part of a larger group of, you know, 30, 40 people that basically earn a living stealing credit card, debit card information.

ARNOLD: Authorities believe this group has been running ATM card-skimming operations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for more than two years and has stolen some $400,000.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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