Monroe, Sultan, Gold Bar Area residents fall victim to credit/debit card thieves
November 10, 2017
Debit cards compromised in Sky Valley area
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Updated 11/16/17 with new information
(MONROE, WA.) -- It appears an unknown number of Sky Valley residents living in the general Monroe, Sultan and Gold Bar areas - and possibly residents of other areas including out-of-staters - have fallen victim to the now ubiquitous credit card "skimmer" scam.
Late yesterday afternoon and last night the Chronicle was informed by several area residents that their bank, in this case Coastal Community Bank, had called to tell them their debit cards had been "compromised," that the bank had frozen those cards from further use and that replacement cards would be sent out to them in the mail.
At story deadline the bank had already closed for the day thus we were unable to obtain comment from a bank official. There may be customers at other banks who were affected as well. This is a developing story. We'll have more in a future report but we thought it was important to tell you what we know at present.
One area resident, who requested his name not be used because the story involves personal financial information, said two Coastal Bank debit cards in his family -- one used by him, the other used by his wife and both belonging to separate accounts -- were in essence "hijacked" by thieves even though the thieves never touched the physical cards.
He said, "We noticed something was weird over last weekend when both my wife and myself had our cards declined at the check out counters of several area stores, including Fred Meyer in Monroe. We knew there was plenty of cash in each account so we just assumed it was a glitch in the banking system software."
He said just as he was about to call the bank on Monday morning Nov. 6, he received a call from a representative at the bank saying both cards had been locked by the bank so no further purchases could be made on them because the cards had been "compromised" by credit card thieves.
He asked how their card numbers had been stolen. He said the bank rep told him they were not sure but that they suspect it was a "credit card skimmer" used somewhere in the Monroe, Sultan, Gold Bar area.
The next day, he said a different bank employee told him that 40 to 50 customers may have been affected. Since skimmers are not bank selective, customers at other banks may have also suffered the same fate. He said he was told that one common place bad guys put skimmers is in gas station pumps.
Update 11/16/17: The man in the paragraph above contacted the Chronicle this week with an update on his family's situation with their compromised Coastal Community Bank debit cards. Here's what he told us:
"After those two debit cards got frozen by the bank, I still had one debit card to one of those accounts that had not been compromised, probably because I hardly ever use it. It's attached to the account my wife mainly uses.
So as soon I learned this third card was not compromised and was okay to use for that account, I began using it at a few places in Monroe. Within just a day or two that card also got compromised and was frozen by the bank. Man was I ticked off.
So I went and looked at the most likely transactions where that card's numbers could have been grabbed by a skimmer. And the only places that make sense were gas station pumps....I did use the card for that...and small outfits where my card was taken out of sight to be charged and those places were fast food joints, one small sit down restaurant in Monroe and small stand-alone, non chain espresso coffee hut like you find on the side of the road. Oh, and I did not use the card at any ATM machines.
All the other places were big outfits like Fred Meyer in Monroe where I myself actually swipe the card and can see the entire transaction.
I don't care what the bank says, after this third card got hit so fast after I started using it in Monroe, I'm convinced there is or was until recently a credit card skimmer or skimmers in Monroe at either a gas station, a fast food joint, sit down restaurant or espresso hut. Maybe even more than one for all I know.
What I've learned from this experience is from now on I'll only use cash when I buy gas, a hamburger at a fast food place, coffee at an espresso hut or restaurants where I cannot physically watch my card being processed in a machine.
It's going to be a pain having to carry cash again but it's better than loosing the use of your debit cards and going thorough the hassle. Now I have to fill out forms to get the money back into my accounts that the scammers took out. What a pain in the rear this has been." End update
What is a credit card skimmer?
Skimmers are malicious card readers that a bad guy can install right into a gas station pump where the "real" credit card slot is. And you won't know it's there.
They "grab the data off the card's magnetic stripe attached to the real payment terminals so that they can harvest data from every person that swipes their cards," according to a PC Mag story published last year. "The thief has to come back to the compromised machine to pick up the file containing all the stolen data, but with that information in hand he can create cloned cards or just break into bank accounts to steal money. Perhaps the scariest part is that some skimmers don't prevent the ATM or credit card reader from functioning properly."
Skimmers are also used at ATM's. PC Mag notes that the typical ATM skimmer is a device smaller than a deck of cards that fits over the existing card reader. "Most of the time, the attackers will also place a hidden camera somewhere in the vicinity with a view of the number pad in order to record personal-identification-numbers, or PINs. The camera may be in the card reader, mounted at the top of the ATM, or even just to the side inside a plastic case holding brochures. Some criminals may install a fake PIN pad over the actual keyboard to capture the PIN directly, bypassing the need for a camera."
There's a link to a 2013 video at the very bottom of this story showing how the skimmers work when installed into a gas pump.
The man who contacted the Chronicle said the bank rep told him it is common for bad guys to place skimmers in gas station pumps because so many people use their cards there so often. Skimmers can be placed in the pump without the owner or the managers at the station knowing a thing about them because there is no outward physical sign that a skimmer is in place.
All the electronics for the skimmer to work are placed inside the gas pump housing.
There's also hand held skimmers
Sometimes hand held skimmers can be used at fast-food and sit-down restaurants and other places where your card is taken out of your line of sight for charging.
When you hand your card to a fast-food employee at the drive through window, there is a period of time that card is out of sight and it takes just a moment for someone to skim the card first onto a portable skimmer and then enter the card into the establishment's legitimate payment system.
The gentleman we talked with said he was told by his bank rep that on Nov. 3rd a suspicious charge for a low dollar amount was noticed on his account but the address attached to his card number was in Las Vegas, Nevada -- a place he has never lived or visited.
He was told the card was frozen at that time but just to be on the safe side he should check his account for bogus charges. He did check and noticed that on Sat. November 4th the bad guys had dinged his account for almost a hundred dollars. The charge was at some market in Las Vegas.
The bank told him to come in and fill out a form to have that charge removed from his account.
What can you do to protect yourself from skimmers?
Here's what the experts say, courtesy PC Mag:
Always Check for Tampering: When you approach an ATM, check for some obvious signs of tampering at the top of the ATM, near the speakers, the side of the screen, the card reader itself, and the keyboard. If something looks different, like a different color or material, graphics that aren't aligned correctly, or anything else that doesn't look right, don't use that ATM. The same is true for credit card readers.
If you're at the bank, take a look at the ATM next to yours and compare them both. If there are any obvious differences, don't use either one, and report what you saw to your bank. Example: if one ATM has a flashing card entry to show where you should insert the ATM card and the other ATM has a plain reader slot, you know something is not right. Since most skimmers are glued on top of the existing reader, they will obscure the flashing indicator. And if the keyboard doesn't feel right—too thick, maybe?—then there may be a "PIN-snatching overlay" so don't use it.
Wiggle Everything: Even if you can't see any visual differences, "push at everything." ATMs are solidly constructed and generally don't have any jiggling or loose parts. Another tip: pull at protruding parts like the card reader. See if the keyboard is securely attached and just one piece. Does anything move when you push at it? That's not a good sign.
Also, wiggling your card as you enter it in an ATM slot won't interfere with your transaction, but will foil the skimmer.
Have eyes in the back of your head: Whenever you enter your debit card's PIN, just assume there is someone looking. Maybe it's over your shoulder or through a hidden camera. Cover the keypad with your hand when you enter your PIN. In other words, it pays here to be a bit paranoid.
And even if you don't notice the skimmer and swipe your card, covering your hand when you enter your PIN can keep you safe if the scammer is using a camera to grab your pin number.
Bad guys frequently install skimmers on ATMs that aren't located in overly busy locations since they don't want to be observed installing malicious hardware or collecting the harvested data. The ATMs inside banks are generally safer because of all the cameras. And the ATM inside a grocery store or restaurant is generally safer than the one that is outside on the sidewalk.
Also, the chances of getting hit by a skimmer are higher on the weekend than during the week, since it's harder for customers to report the suspicious ATMs to the bank. Criminals typically install skimmers on Saturdays or Sundays, and then remove them before the banks reopen on Monday.
Remember the guy above that we talked to: it happened to him and his wife over last weekend.