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Police Trying to Crack ATM Fraud

Apr 9, 2013

ATM Scam Suspect
Credit Photo from Aspen Police Department

Investigators are still trying to figure out what happened at several Aspen ATMs in late March. The criminals withdrew thousands of dollars with fake debit and credit cards. But the big question remains... how were they able to make the cards in the first place? Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher has this report.

You’ve probably heard this advice a thousand times: if you have a debit card, don’t share your pin number. And cover up the keypad when you enter it at a store, ATM or a gas station. Aspen Police Investigator Walter Chi agrees. That’s because pin numbers played a huge role during crimes committed on March 23rd and 24th.

“What we know right now [Monday April 8th] is that several men, maybe in two different groups, came to Aspen, using ATM cards that were skimmed.”

Skimmed means those criminals didn’t actually take the debit or credit cards... they’d made duplicates, and used those to withdraw cash. Oh yeah--and they had those magical four number combinations, too.

“They were using those pin numbers and cards at local banks, at their atms, on a weekend in late march.”

There were at least six men, and they hit three ATMs in Aspen, plus a cash machine in Glenwood Springs. It’s not clear how much money was stolen--an estimate for one machine was about twenty thousand dollars. But that turns out to be wrong, according to the bank that runs it. To catch the criminals, the Aspen Police Department has to figure out how they got the information to make those fake cards. It usually takes three things - a card itself....anything from a gift card to a hotel key card. Then the data on the magnetic strip on the back of the real card. And finally, the secret pin number that goes with it.

“What we don’t know is where that information was gathered.”

Which brings us back to the word “skimmed.” Criminals get the card info with something actually called a “skimmer.” Brian Krebs is an independent investigative reporter, and authors the site According to his research, it only takes two pieces of very simple equipment.

“A hidden camera of some kind, to steal your pin. And this could be disguised as an overhead panel, that looks a lot like the regular panel. Could be a mirror, could be a brochure rack, right next to the pin pad.”

The second piece of technology steals the data stored in the magnetic strip on the back of your card. This equipment often sits on the ATM, fitting over where you stick your card into the machine.

“And it looks exactly like the card acceptance slot usually, and it’s got a little data storage unit that grabs that data when you swipe your card.”

That card reader and the camera can be easily made with parts from cheap electronics. Criminals install them in any place people use cards--stores, gas stations, not just ATMs.  A skimmer was found on an Aspen ATM this winter--and the police found it because they had enough information to trace back to it. Now, they need that kind of information again to figure out where the skimmer is this time around. Investigator
Chi says it all depends on what victims can tell the police.

“Where did they all use their ATM or their pin number at the same place? Really I think we have that many known victims to us, or really four, that have come to report, but we think there’s more.”

Chi says other ATMs in the Roaring Fork Valley may have also been hit. In the meantime, protecting that pin number may be your best bet at avoiding getting skimmed--and being relieved of your savings. Again, reporter Brian Krebs.

“If you cover your hand over the pin pad, and they happen to steal your card information, you’re probably not going to be out money as a result of that.”

You could go one step further. Officials agree that avoiding even using your pin can help-- like running your debit card as credit. And Investigator Walter Chi has this advice.

“Use the security that the banks and credit cards provide, as in you can get text messages and you can get emails as you’re using those cards. So if someone gets a hold of your number, uses your card to purchase, you get a text message, you can get on it right away and stop it.”

If you see something fishy going on at an ATM, report it. Aspen’s Vectra Bank runs one of the ATMs that was hit. In a statement, the company says, “Our surveillance shows that customers might have witnessed these men in hoodies and sunglasses at night and apparently did not report the suspect behavior.”