Police warn of debit card skimming

As the Christmas rush looms, debit cards will be getting a workout. And where there’s money changing hands — even electronically — there is opportunity for those who won’t hesitate to give someone a blue Christmas if they can line their own pockets.

Police have received complaints about local consumers’ debit cards being compromised. People are being advised to change their PIN numbers regularly.

Police have received complaints about local consumers’ debit cards being compromised. People are being advised to change their PIN numbers regularly.

As the Christmas rush looms, debit cards will be getting a workout.

And where there’s money changing hands — even electronically — there is opportunity for those who won’t hesitate to give someone a blue Christmas if they can line their own pockets.

At the Sylvan Lake RCMP detachment half a dozen people came in recently to complain their cards had been skimmed, said Sgt. Duncan Babchuk. Information was passed on to the commercial crimes section in Calgary.

A recent caller to the Red Deer Advocate said he was recently told by his bank, Servus Credit Union, that his debit card may have been compromised. He was told there were plenty of others in the same boat.

Babchuk doesn’t want to identify the banks or businesses affected.

“It’s happening to everybody. There’s a rash of this going on. It’s not just here. It’s all over Canada.”

Sometimes people complain that the police aren’t being proactive enough. But catching the culprits is difficult.

Often criminals don’t use skimmed PIN card data for months after it was stolen to cover their tracks and make it near impossible to determine where and when the crime occurred. Often businesses have no idea their machines were targeted.

Babchuk sent out a news release earlier this week to remind people to change their PIN numbers regularly and closely monitor bank accounts. While consumer awareness may help limit losses, the criminals won’t be going away anytime soon.

“There’s big money being made. And it’s easy for these people.”

Servus spokesman Mike Dickenson would not confirm that its bank customers had been targeted recently, but said the problem is widespread.

“We do not comment on any cases of card skimming that are under active investigation,” he said.

“I can tell you that card skimming is kind of an ongoing thing here in Alberta that affects all financial institutions. It’s an unfortunate fact there are a lot of criminal minds out there and this is a pretty easy way to make money unfortunately.”

The number one piece of advice for customers is guard your pin number zealously, he said.

Also important: choose PIN numbers carefully. Avoid obvious numbers like your home address or birthdate, and don’t leave the number in your wallet.

“Without your PIN number your debit card is useless. They can skim your card, but without that pin number they can’t make it work.”

It’s also wise to check your statements carefully, either online or when they are mailed out.

Always report any suspicious activity on your account to the bank.

RCMP Sgt. Glen Demmon, with K Division’s commercial crimes section, said criminals have figured out a number of ways around the PIN problem.

Sometimes, the approach is as low-tech as just looking over a card user’s shoulder while they are keying their PIN in. It’s even got a name: shoulder surfing.

Other times cameras are used to record the code being punched in. Criminals have also taken a high-tech approach by using a dummy card reader that also records PIN numbers and can transmit it to a criminal waiting nearby.

The problem is growing. Statistics posted on the RCMP’s national website show that the amount of money lost to debit card fraud has grown every year since 2004, the first year recorded in the chart. That year, $60 million was stolen through debit card fraud.

Last year, Interac Association, which oversees the network that allows Canadians to access their money through their debit cards reimbursed $142 million to its customers. The association says debit card users are protected and will not suffer financial losses from circumstances beyond their control.

Demmon said debit cards with a chip offer more protection, but as long as the magnetic strip is still used criminals will be able to pull information off the strip.

Canada has been criticized for being slow off the mark in adopting chip and PIN technology for debit cards, compared with Europe and other places. Canadian merchants and others offering debit card service have until the end of 2015 to switch over to chip technology, which has proven effective in combatting skimmers.

Even with chip technology, criminals will find a way. Instead of skimming they may have to go back to stealing cards outright after they’ve found out the PIN number.

“It’s just going to change the way they have to operate,” said Demmon. “It’s not going to eliminate the fraud.”

So far, the chip technology itself has never been compromised. “That’s not to say they’re not working on a way to do it.”

If merchants checked identification for all debit and credit cards, a lot of problems would be solved, he said.

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com