Thieves trying for winning numbers
Random card numbers are a hit with debit card thieves
STORY SUMMARY »
Thieves are randomly generating debit and credit card numbers, striking some unsuspecting Hawaii residents.
Such thieves don't need to steal the actual card. Nor do they need to steal your account information. Instead, by using computers to randomly generate numbers, they attempt to use the numbers to charge purchases and sometimes get lucky.
While this form of credit card fraud is less common than other types of such fraud and is not new, law enforcement authorities say debit and credit cardholders need to be vigilant about checking their statements to see whether any unauthorized transactions appear.
One Honolulu woman recently had her checking account nearly emptied by someone who possibly utilized this method of generating numbers and hit upon her debit card number, then used it to make hundreds of dollars in purchases in Mexico.
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Debit card user Karen Onishi has always kept an eye on her checking account.
So the 58-year-old Kapahulu woman was shocked July 14 to discover her Central Pacific Bank checking account had been drained of $1,338 apparently by someone on a shopping spree in Mexico, leaving a balance of just $9.
A dozen or so illegal transactions were made in Mexico from July 11 to 13.
Meanwhile, Onishi had been using her debit card locally. "No way could I have been in Mexico at the same time," she said.
CARD FRAUD FIX
What to do if you are the victim of credit card/debit card fraud:
» Call the financial institution or credit card company immediately to report the illegal activity and cancel the card.
» Call police and file a report. Follow up, if applicable and instructed by police, with a report to the appropriate federal agency.
» Consider freezing your credit report to avoid damage to your credit rating.
» Order a copy of your credit report to check for unusual entries.
» For further help or inquiries, call the state Office of Consumer Protection.
Onishi immediately reported the illegal activity to the bank and asked how this could happen when her card wasn't stolen. A bank employee told her someone had randomly generated card numbers and had hit upon hers, she said.
"Identity theft is one thing, but now you can just make cards at random," she said. "It's the luck of the draw they pick your card (number). That's scary."
Purchases ranged from $12 at a McDonald's (the only name Onishi recognized among the Spanish business names) up to $363.90.
What was perplexing to Onishi was she thought she had only $250 in her account. How could someone rack up $1,338 in purchases?
Onishi had felt secure using a debit card instead of a credit card because it is limited to the balance in the checking account, which she kept low. She later learned some checks she had written hadn't been cashed at the time of the fraudulent withdrawals.
Law enforcement officials said criminals use numerous methods to steal card numbers, of which random generation of numbers is one and not new.
Honolulu police Lt. Andrew Castro of the Financial Fraud Detail said certain series of numbers belong to different institutions. "Guys who understand the system will play that game," he said.
They often start with small charges, he said. "If it works, then they go for bigger-ticket items."
That seemed to be the case with the illegal transactions for Onishi's debit card use started with the small McDonald's purchases before larger ticket items.
It's no different than someone stealing your card and trying to use it, Castro said.
Castro said it's much harder to prove someone is fraudulently using a credit or debit card in Mexico or any foreign country.
"Once you get outside the United States, it's hard to track down suspects," Castro said. "It's difficult to get foreign law enforcement to assist."
U.S. Secret Service Special Agent-in-Charge Al Joaquin said random generation of credit card numbers is "not a very common thing here." But once a number is obtained, it can be embossed on a regular white plastic card and often a collusive merchant is involved, he said.
Most times, the card is swiped with details coming from its magnetic strip, but when thieves randomly generate numbers they aren't able to reproduce the magnetic strip.
So they would be less likely to be used at various businesses, Joaquin said.
Joaquin said those involved in credit card fraud have various means of taking numbers. Some have access to banking records, others use skimming devices. Criminals can buy series of credit card numbers and sell thousands of numbers, Joaquin said.
State Office of Consumer Protection Executive Director Stephen Levins recounted how an attorney in his office was victimized by someone using a skimming device. A motel clerk in California copied his credit card using such a device, then "went to Mexico and charged a bunch of stuff," Levins said.
But Levins hasn't heard local reports of randomly generated credit or debit card numbers, possibly due to a lack of a uniform method of reporting by each law enforcement agency. Statistics are haphazard and sometimes duplicative, he said.
Onishi was also bothered by the fact that she was not alerted by the bank to the overt suspicious activity. She said a bank official told her VISA oversees the security on her debit card, and if any suspicious activity occurs, it would be VISA that would alert her.
Onishi caught the fraudulent activity by closely monitoring her account, and reported it to the bank and to police.
Central Pacific Bank spokesman Cedric Yamanaka said: "Fraud is prevalent. We do everything we can to protect customers from fraud. Conversely, our customers must do their part and be diligent with their statements. Report suspicious activity as soon as you see it."
Federal regulations prevent him from discussing customers' accounts, so he could not comment on why she did not receive an alert. But he said Onishi did everything right.
Police said victims should report such incidents to local police, who may refer them to other agencies such as the FBI or Secret Service.
The Office of Consumer Protection suggests consumers could also freeze their credit report after spotting unusual activity and unfreeze it once they feel the danger has passed, Levins said. He also suggests ordering a copy of their credit report to check for unusual entries.
But the cardholder is never responsible for confirmed unauthorized transactions, Yamanaka said. As for Onishi, "We apologize for any inconvenience and her checking account will be made whole," he said.
Onishi's account was credited the amount taken and all overdraft charges were waived. Although she feels more vulnerable, Onishi says she'll continue to use her debit card.
"I don't know what people really can do," she said. "There's so much fraud today. It's just endless. Fraud is everywhere."