By Nesa Nourmohammadi
Thursday, April 22, 2010; GZ19
Cases of a hard-to-detect form of credit card fraud are showing up more frequently in the Washington region, police say, including a recent case in Rockville, where a skimming device that reads encrypted credit card data was found in a Wachovia bank branch ATM.
A credit card skimmer is a device that uses a card scanner and camera to capture credit card information. The skimmer is placed over the card slot reader and reads the magnetic swipe, while a hidden miniature camera in the device works in tandem to record the personal identification number.
Once the confidential information is collected, thieves are free to use it, police say. In most cases, the victim's account information and PIN "are put onto a clone card," said Detective Brandon Mengedoht of the Montgomery County Police Department's checks and fraud division.
Mengedoht described the skimmer found at the Congressional Plaza Wachovia as "homemade and not very advanced." The unit had a magnetic card reader and a spy camera inserted in it.
The skimmer was discovered by a customer using the Wachovia ATM at Congressional Plaza on April 3.
"He noticed something was askew and pulled on" the device, Rockville Police Chief Terence N. Treschuk said. "He then proceeded to call police."
The investigation has been forwarded to the county police checks and fraud division. Treschuk said his department does not handle skimming cases often, "but it's something that's been around for a long time."
Despite being relatively unknown to the general public, skimmers are not difficult to detect, Mengedoht said.
"The skimming attachment protrudes from the card slot," he said. "If you go up to where the slot is, you can tell something is off. You can certainly feel around before you put your card in."
The card-reading attachment often is held together with double-sided tape, making it easy to remove, Mengedoht said.
Bank customers who see a skimmer should remove it from the machine and turn it in to a bank employee, he said. They should not stand by and wait, as thieves sometimes lurk near the ATM to monitor activity.
Rockville police Sgt. J.P. Cowell estimates his department has handled "maybe one or two" cases involving ATM skimmers before the one this month.
Mengedoht said "multiple cases of skimming" were reported in the metropolitan area during the past couple of months, and the incidents are "most likely" related.
"We've had 39 citizens complain of cards getting skimmed, but it's likely there are hundreds of cases," he said.
The Rockville skimming device is the second such device found on an area Wachovia bank ATM this year, police said. A skimmer found Feb. 28 in an ATM in the 3600 block of King Street in Alexandria resulted in the theft of more than $60,000 from Wachovia accounts.
"We take the issue of skimming very seriously, and, while we can't get into specifics because we don't want to tip off fraudsters, we are constantly evaluating and improving our security measures at our ATMs," said Erik Kodjanian, Wachovia market president for Greater Washington. "While we fully reimburse any customer who is a victim of this crime, we want to do everything we can to prevent it."
ATMs from other banks, including Bank of America and M&T, also have been found with skimmers attached, police said. Photos from ATM surveillance cameras identify the same people using machines in the Washington area and along the East Coast as far south as Florida, coinciding with reports of skimming, Mengedoht said.
County police are cooperating with law enforcement officials in Connecticut, Florida and Virginia on cases they think might be linked.
"It's sometimes the same people doing the skimming and recovery," he said.
Kodjanian said customers should be vigilant when using their bank cards for purchases.
"Our customers are key partners in these efforts," he said. "We encourage everyone to pay careful attention to the card readers they use frequently, whether at the bank, the gas station or any other point of sale, and notify the proprietor immediately if they notice anything unusual."