Recent fraud prompts advice: Be vigilant with debit, credit cards

Many Vashon residents have recently fallen victim to attempted or actual debit card fraud, and officials with financial institutions are urging islanders to be vigilant about their bank or credit union accounts as a standard practice.

The recent fraud came to light, in part, at island banks and credit unions, but Facebook also played a role last week when one person posted in two community forums about his experience, and many others followed suit, saying they, too, had recently been victimized in a similar way. The man who led off the online conversation indicated he had been a victim of “skimming,” which occurs when someone uses a device to illegally collect data, including the card and pin number, from the magnetic stripe of a credit, debit or ATM card. That information is used to create a fraudulent card to make purchases or cash withdrawals in the account holder’s name, all while the card has never left the owner’s possession.

Islander Mardi Ledbetter was among those affected. A thief, or thieves, used a fraudulent card to check her checking and savings account balances at an ATM in Olympia and then made four withdrawals in two days, in both Olympia and West Seattle. She and her husband found the withdrawals themselves, and immediately contacted BECU, their financial institution, to prevent further fraudulent activity. She noted that BECU officials told her that the skimming likely occurred in December or January.

Because the fraud occurred with a debit card, which provides direct access to funds, late last week Ledbetter was waiting for her money to be returned to her — a process, she said, that was expected to take several days. She noted that she and her husband had sufficient funds to cover them while they waited, but that has not always been true.

“For some people it would be a huge deal. Fortunately, we can survive through this. At another point in my life it might not have been the case,” she said.

In the online forums, some 15 islanders indicated they had been victims — or near victims — of recent fraud, including purchases made in and out of state, cash withdrawals from ATMs and instances when financial institutions prevented such activity from taking place and alerted them.

Some of the online conversation centered on where the skimming device might have been, but from that information, as well as from conversations with managers of island financial institutions, it is not clear if the skimmer was on- or off-island, or if more than one skimming location was involved.

Regardless, because skimming and other types of debit and credit card fraud is so common, financial experts offer the same advice: Individuals must protect themselves. Jim Pishue, the president and CEO of the Washington Bankers Association, stressed that point.

“There are all sorts of devious ways to obtain this information. We (card holders) are the best protection,” he said. “It is really important that customers continually check to make sure charges are legitimate. Be vigilant especially with debit cards.”

On Vashon, managers of three of the four financial institutions indicated they had one or more customers involved in the recent cluster of fraud.

At Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union (PSCCU), manager Lori Nelson said they have seen some of the recent problems. However, while several islanders were affected, overall the credit union is seeing less fraud than when large stores such as Home Depot and Target were hacked a few years ago. Additionally, she noted that there are consumer protections in place. Customers are reimbursed for fraudulent losses, and every financial institution does its own fraud monitoring and often catches problems before a financial loss occurs. She added she is certain a skimmer has never been placed on the PSCCU ATM, as the company has systems in place that would indicate if any attempt at placing a skimmer were to occur.

At US Bank, some customers were affected as well, and branch manager Heather Russell cautioned islanders to be particularly careful and observant at ATMs and gas stations, where skimmers are most likely to be found. Skimming devices can be detectable if people know what they are looking for, she added, and suggested that people make sure there is nothing that looks like it has been superimposed over the card slot. A small camera sometimes accompanies the skimming device, and she recommended shielding hand movements when putting in PIN numbers and zip codes.

Like others, she stressed the importance of reviewing bank statements and following banking activity online — and using credit cards, where charges can be reversed immediately.

Our Community Credit Union (OCCU) manager Margi Amstrup provided a brief statement regarding the situation.

“We are aware of the recent conversations regarding compromised debit and credit cards in the Vashon community, and one of those affected was an OCCU member,” she said in an email. “OCCU is taking a proactive approach to get fraud prevention information out to our members very soon. Knowledge is power in protecting yourself against scammers.”

Chase Bank personnel referred questions to the corporate spokesperson, who declined to comment, but recommended Pishue as a resource for fraud information.

At the King County Sheriff’s Office, spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West said that the “solvability factor” on fraud instances such as those that occurred recently on Vashon is low, but she encouraged islanders to file reports over the phone or, preferably, online at reporttosheriff.org. By state law, she noted, instances like this are considered identity theft. If the skimming occurred in the sheriff’s office jurisdiction or the victim lives in the jurisdiction, the department will take a report, she added.

Pishue confirmed that the number of fraud cases recently reported on Vashon is definitely above the norm, but said that the dollar amounts in this type of fraud are typically not large enough for police involvement. He again stressed personal vigilance as the best protection. Beyond skimming, he added that people should be alert to other types of fraud and never give their card information out to a phone caller professing to be from a financial institution. Additionally, he noted that any time a card leaves the owner’s possession, such as in a restaurant, there is the potential for some risk.

If a problem is found, he added, people should notify their financial institution right away and provide information on where they have been using the card if possible. He too, said credit cards — with charges can simply be reversed — were a safer alternative to debit cards.

Moving ahead, Ledbetter said her debit card has been replaced, and she is continuing to use it — but with new awareness.

“I do not like thieves to rule my life, and our banks are great about helping us,” she said. “But I am more careful about where I use my card.”

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