Steps to protect against credit-card skimming

LOS ANGELES Tools that thieves use to make fraudulent credit cards that allow them to steal from your bank and credit card accounts include everything from counterfeit cards to credit-card skimmers to embossers and printers.

Fortunately these tools of fraud are now in the hands of the U.S. Secret Service. But Agent Steve Scarince says this crime is so pervasive right now it's impossible to stop.

When asked if he thought the Service had enough manpower, Scarince said, "Never. Never. I could use an army. It's very big."

And the thieves are difficult to catch. Police are still looking for one man who worked at a Redondo Beach gas station a few months ago and then vanished after planting skimming devices in the gas pumps there. Later the devices did their dirty work, stealing credit and debit card information along with personal identification numbers.

"We believe our loss is up to $200,000. That's a minimum right now," said Redondo Beach Police Sergeant Phil Keenan.

Credit-card fraud involves worldwide organized crime, but local gang members have gotten into the act too.

"They're definitely gangs involved," said Scarince. "Why rob a bank when you can skim a credit card and get the same amount of money?"

MagTek is a Seal Beach company that manufactures many of the credit-card readers you see in stores and gas stations, and on your hotel room door.

Tom Patterson is MagTek's chief security officer and a former consultant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

He says skimmers are easy to find and cheap to get.

"They sell for about twenty bucks on eBay," said Patterson. "They're not illegal to have, unlike if you had a set of lockpicks, but you hadn't used it, that's illegal, that's a burglary tool. But a skimmer is not classified as illegal."

Patterson says local gang members often hire servers in restaurants to skim your card, and it's incredibly simple.

"You hand over your credit card to the waiter or waitress, as they're walking back, they pull this skimmer out of their pocket, which they bought on eBay for twenty bucks, and they just [slide the card] and put it back in their pocket. It has now captured all the information on this card."

But Patterson says MagTek may have come up with a solution to most credit-card skimming.

On the back of your credit or debit card is a magnetic stripe that is more unique than your DNA. But today's credit-card readers don't take that into account. So MagTek came up with this little computer chip that when you swipe your card, it can tell if it's the original card or a fraudulent one.

While we wait for that chip to go mainstream there are a few things you can do to protect yourself.

Check your credit-card statements regularly, on a weekly basis if possible.

Occasionally call your credit-card company and have them send you a new card with new numbers.

Watch your card closely, especially at restaurants or any other place that takes it from you.

And try to use your credit card instead of your debit card. You will have less to lose that way.

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