Crime & Courts

1,000-plus card-fraud cases reported in 2016 in Midlands, why you could be next

Three men recently purchased $7,000 in liquor and wine at a Columbia store using credit cards that investigators say were cloned.

The men on April 11 entered Sam’s Wine and Spirits on Killian Road, loaded up their carts and paid for their merchandise using credit cards that were cloned from someone else’s card and account information, according to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. No arrests have been made.

Financial-card fraud is up, and these crimes are being carried out more frequently using card skimmers and cloned cards, authorities in Columbia and Richland County say.

The Columbia Police Department received 369 reports of card fraud in 2016 compared to 290 in 2012, according to agency numbers. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department had 655 reports of card fraud in 2016 compared to 585 in 2012. Cases in Lexington County were not immediately known.

Investigators say card skimming is one of the most common ways criminals gain access to people’s card and account information.

Card skimmers are plastic devices that are placed over the card readers of automatic teller machines or gas pumps. When customers insert their cards to use the machine or pump, the skimmer records information on the card’s magnetic stripe, including the account number and PIN, and stores it. The thief later accesses card information from anyone who used the machine while the device was attached.

“As soon as you swipe it, the suspect doesn’t even necessarily have to recover the skimmer from the pump,” said investigator Robert Welch with the Columbia Police Department. “They access it remotely and they already have the numbers, so they can leave the skimmer.”

FICO reported earlier this year that the number of debit cards compromised at ATMs and merchants in the United States spiked 70 percent in 2016. Early monitoring shows a continued increase in compromised cards in 2017, according to T.J. Horan, vice president of fraud solutions for FICO.

Widely available technology like low-cost Bluetooth devices and miniature cameras has contributed to more cards being compromised, Horan said.

“While the rise of the internet and our ability to communicate quickly with anyone in the world has been a fantastic consumer experience, it’s also provided criminals with an easy way to share compromised card details and to act very quickly once they have those compromised cards,” he said.

Cloned cards, like the ones used to purchase $7,000 in liquor, are becoming more common.

“Whether it’s a credit card, your driver’s license or a hotel key card, it’s the same magnetic strip,” -------Caldwell said. “It’s the data on there that makes the difference.”

The other most common way people’s card information is compromised is through data breaches. A malware attack that hit Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants in March and April affected customers from at least 20 restaurants in South Carolina, including four in the Columbia area.

While hacks of large businesses and corporations get the most attention, Caldwell and Horan say small businesses are susceptible, too.

“In many instances, smaller establishments may not have the policies and procedures around security as some of the larger-scale enterprises,” Horan said.

Investigating card fraud is difficult and time-consuming, especially if the perpetrator is carrying out the fraud from outside the jurisdiction where the victim lives.

“Sometimes we have to do three, four, five different search warrants for one case just to get the records we need,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell urges people to get a credit bureau report twice yearly and to monitor their bank accounts online. If you notice charges that appear to be fraudulent, contact the bank or credit card company immediately and cancel the card.

“It’s tough to come out and say, ‘If you do these three things, it won’t happen to you,’” he said. “You just about can’t do that now. The good old days of just locking your card up and it’s safe are gone.”