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Apodaca: Be careful about swiping cards as you shop

December 01, 2012|By Patrice Apodaca

On the day after Thanksgiving, I ate leftovers, went to a movie, ate more leftovers, and put gas in my car in preparation for a trip to the Rose Bowl for the UCLA-Stanford football game the following day.

Oh yes, I might also have been the victim of a crime — and I'm not referring to UCLA's defeat, although the Bruins' dismal performance was borderline criminal.

My credit card number was stolen.

The way it happened is a lesson in how easily such theft can be accomplished, and how powerless we often feel to stop it. In spite of safeguards taken by consumers to protect their financial information and crackdown efforts by law enforcement agencies, financial institutions and retailers, data theft remains a ubiquitous threat, like a nasty rash that can be tamped down in spots only to pop up somewhere else.

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My visit to the gas station? That might have been all that was needed to rip off my number, according to the Costa Mesa police detective investigating the case.

Here's how these crafty thieves work: Like modern-day Fagins, these criminals often work in gangs. Instead of using orphans like Oliver Twist to pick pockets, they attach so-called skimming devices to the credit and debit card readers on gasoline pumps. The gadgets are small, can be installed quickly and easily, and are extremely difficult for the untrained eye to detect.

When consumers swipe their cards, the devices record the numbers, including possibly the personal identification numbers used with debit cards. The devices are later removed with equal ease, and the stolen numbers are used to make counterfeit cards.

The thieves then use the fake cards to empty bank accounts and run up debts. Victims often don't learn of the thefts until they receive their monthly financial statements and notice the bogus charges, or until they receive calls from a financial institution's anti-fraud department checking on questionable transactions.

In my case, I was unaware of the wrongdoing until I got a call from the Costa Mesa Police Department. A suspect had been placed under arrest after someone reported to the police that a customer had been acting suspiciously while trying to make a purchase at a South Coast Plaza jewelry store. My credit card number was among those in the suspect's stash of fake cards, but it hadn't yet been used.

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