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Credit card scams are becoming ever more elaborate. Just what can we do to protect our money?

John Sutherland
Monday 3 December 2001
The Guardian

Going over my monthly credit card bill last week I discovered, among my usual modest expenditures, a whopping charge for 4,000 marks, payable to a casino in Aachen. Not me, Mr Barclay, not me. No problem, of course. I "dispute" the charge, don't pay, and it goes with all the other criminal misuse on to the huge APR levied across the board on card-holders.

Those thousands of marks represent an elegant solution to the problem faced by the villains who, for their villainous ends, acquire "skimmed" cards.

How is that done? The magnetic tape is duplicated by much the same mechanism as "swiping", and pasted on to a dummy. Indian restaurants, according to current folklore, are where your card is most at risk. A bent waiter, with a small device attached to his belt, can skim dozens of cards in an evening. Skimming, wits say, is Punjabi for "service charge".

OK: you've got the skimmed card. But how do you suck cash out of your phoney plastic without knowing my PIN? You can buy washing machines, cameras, taxi rides, hot hours with escort ladies, jewellery, even Indian meals: you, at least, don't have to worry about the waiter. But goods have to be fenced and leave a trail for the police. And, with all those CCTV eyes peering down at you, cashback is slow and risky.

Software Id Card Alphacard Id Software Card Alphacard What my ingenious thief did, I assume, was hop on an EasyJet to Germany, go to the casino, buy as many chips as my puny credit would tolerate, hold the chips for an hour or two and then cash them in as "winnings". Bingo. The local police won't trouble themselves over a victimless "English" crime. Doubtless he had a sackful of cards, did a string of casinos and flew back with abundle of loot. Clever him.

Of course, you need fake ID - a passport, if you're in Aachen. That's where Frederick Forsyth comes in. The Day of the Jackal explains how you get fake British passports - it's "the easiest thing in the world", the novel urbanely asserts. Indeed, the technique has proved foolproof over the decades. Forsyth has pointed out to successive home secretaries how the loophole can be blocked. But it seems they have more important things to do.

The other credit card hit I've recently suffered reached epidemic proportions in London a few months ago. You reach the front of the line and punch in your PIN. The man behind memorises the pattern of your fingers on the number pad - they're very big, nowadays, to accommodate arthritic or visually impaired users. As you wait for your card to be spat out, a pretty young girl - in my experience, with an eastern European accent - politely taps you on the shoulder and says you've dropped a £10 note from your wallet. As you bend down to pick up the tenner, the man behind deftly lifts your spat-out card. You straighten up, £10 richer. Your cash comes out of the machine, but no card. You assume the ATM has eaten it. It happens. You make a mental note to make a phone call when you get home. Meanwhile the team (which now knows your PIN) is hitting every cash machine in town. If it's a Switch card and your current account is loaded, they can do a lot of damage.

Supposing the caper doesn't come off - for instance, you stamp your foot on the tenner and keep your eyes fixed on the machine - the criminals have done nothing illegal and are down a few quid. Business expenses.

We need to be more careful. But the credit card companies should also do their bit - and lower that outrageous APR while they're at it. It would, for instance, be simple to have ATMs squawk loudly when the card is extruded. Waiters should swipe customers' cards at the table, as is increasingly common in the US, rather than making off with them for five minutes. You wouldn't let them take your wallet. And, as I believe is also increasingly the case in the US, credit cards should be invalid for gambling debts or the purchase of casino chips. But I wouldn't know about that. I don't patronise casinos. Believe me, Mr Barclay, I don't.

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