‘Tis the season for summer vacations, and Long Beach Police detectives say now is the time to be cautious when it comes to protecting credit and debit card information.

Detective Greg McMullen, who also serves as the president of the Southern California Chapter of the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators, said summertime travelers and the general public need to take certain precautions when using cards, especially at ATMs, gas stations and restaurants.

“Skimming, the unauthorized capture of the encoded data on the black stripe of your credit card, is one of the fastest growing threats to the US and to the world,” McMullen said.

He explained that criminals, who especially target tourist locations, are installing skimming devices on credit card scanners or ATM machines that download the card’s information. That information is then re-incoded onto phony gift cards and used to purchase goods or services illegally.

What makes skimming and re-incoding such a threat to the economy, McMullen said, is that those responsible for the crime are difficult to catch. The devices installed in credit card readers are often placed there by a third party, sometimes unknowingly. Credit card skimmers are small, usually about the size of a pager, and can be placed at a business by phony workmen or even a business’s employees who are being paid off.

Additionally, there is a ripple effect with this type of credit card fraud — not only is the person whose card is stolen impacted, but the bank is impacted and eventually the merchant who sold goods or services to the phony card holder is the one who has to recoup the costs. That cost is placed back on the consumers, McMullen said.

“This is a very fast and growing threat to customers, businesses and our economic well-being,” McMullen said, adding that the crime is trending upward in Southern California. He himself was a victim of credit card skimming and his card information was used to purchase goods overseas in Belgium.

While customers may not be able to prevent themselves from being victimized by skimming, they can help themselves minimize the risks.

McMullen said everyone using an ATM machine should check to make sure the machine does not look tampered with — the machine’s card reader should not be loose, and users should look for tiny cameras above the pin number pad. The detective recommends always covering the pin pad with one hand while entering the pin number with the other hand.

Business owners with ATM machines also should check the machines regularly and never allow someone without proper credentials to work on the machine. The same goes for gas stations, where business owners need to take precautions when it comes to giving out the keys to open the gas pumps (these keys can be copied).

Consumers purchasing gasoline should take similar precautions at the pump. Look for tampering and do not use the gas pump if the credit card scanner is loose or if the red tape on the scanner is broken.

Business owners also should be careful when accepting gift cards from customers — if the gift card number doesn’t match the number on the receipt, then the card most likely has been skimmed, McMullen said. He added that people should cut up and throw away used gift cards.

The best thing people can do to help minimize the impact of a skimmed credit card is to report the problem to their bank immediately. McMullen said many people do not realize that their credit card information has been compromised until they receive their monthly bank statement — he advises checking online bank statements more regularly.

“As consumers, we won’t know that our credit card has been compromised unless we really take advantage of online banking services,” McMullen said. “Especially if you are traveling, and especially if you are using a debit card, you want to monitor your account activity daily… Consumers do have usually a 30- to 60-day window to let their bank know that an account has been compromised, and if you notify your card issuer within a timely manner, they are required to give you provisional credit.”

McMullen said that the sooner people report a problem with credit card skimming, the more likely it is that police detectives will be able to locate the source of the skimming device and find the criminals responsible for the act.

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