Every 18 seconds in America, a house is burglarized; every 36.9 seconds, one person is assaulted, abused by his/her partner (52 seconds for women and 3.5 minutes for men), raped (1.9 minutes), and murdered (every 31 minutes). The rate of crime has increased dramatically over the last few decades, but still nothing happens faster in the country than credit card fraud: one instance every 2 seconds, according to the “2014 Identity Fraud Study” report compiled by Javelin Strategy.
Although the amount of money stolen through credit card fraud is down from $21 billion in 2013 to $18 billion – not to mention the plunge recorded from 2004’s cost figures, when identity fraud hit an all-time high of $48 billion – this doesn’t mean Americans’ money are out of fraudsters’ reach. On the contrary, the report shows an increase by more than 500,000 victims in 2013, the second-highest number since the study was initiated more than a decade ago.
Sure, the fact that the amount stolen has dropped by as much as $3 billion is definitely good news. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that more and more innocent cardholders fall victims to the ever more cunning and sophisticated fraudsters. As technology advances, so too do the methods criminals use in their fraudulent activities, and they are now more inventive, more effective, and faster-moving than ever. Here’s how credit card fraud techniques have advanced in the past years, catching more and more unprepared and unsuspected cardholders off-guard:
Out with the Old? Not Yet
Fraudsters may have moved from traditional, simple credit card theft methods to harder-to-detect, more sophisticated ways of stealing people’s money, but that doesn’t mean the old ways are now obsolete. Lost-and-stolen card fraud is, perhaps, the simplest method of accessing fund and making unauthorized charges on someone else’s account. The same goes for mail non-receipt card fraud, another method of getting access to an account without resorting to technology: a newly issued or replacement card is physically stolen from its recipient and registered by the criminal, who then proceeds to use the available funds.
Account takeover and opening new accounts in the victim’s name is also a traditional type of fraud popular these days which, according to Javelin Strategy study, makes up 28 percent of all credit card fraud incidents. “Account takeovers for utilities and mobile phone fraud nearly tripled, as fraudsters add new properties to victims’ utility accounts and run up unauthorized charges using ‘premium’ texting services. Consumers that are a victim of account takeover tend to start paying bills online to improve security.”
Account takeovers occur when criminals gather sufficient information about the credit card holder to call the emitting bank and request a change of address. Having in his possession documents containing personal data about you, the fraudster can easily present proof of identity to the bank/credit card company and have a new credit card sent to a fake address, one to which he has access.
CNP(card-not-present) fraud is another criminal activity that can be perpetrated against unsuspecting cardholders even in the absence of an actual card – the only information needed to access funds is account number and expiration date. The fraud may occur via email, phone, or internet, and can be detected by checking bank statements carefully. (Usually, criminals first check the credit card by processing a small transaction – detecting it on your bank statement may put you on guard for bigger expenditures that will likely follow.)
Modern Times, Modern Methods
The more sophisticated card fraud types include:
Doctored (fake) cards – The criminal erases the metallic strip of an existing card using an electro-magnet and modifies the details to match those of a valid stolen card. At the first attempt to use the card, the merchant will swipe it through the credit card reader several times before noticing that it doesn’t work and will proceed to input the details manually. This process is riskier than others because it requires the cashier to pay close attention to the card and may discover it has been tampered with.
Skimming – With the help of a battery-operated magnetic stripe reader known as a pocket skimming device, employees and cashiers in charge of credit card readers may easily obtain customers’ card details, while the client is waiting for the transaction to be validated. Skimming devices are cheap (most under $100) and available to pretty much anyone who has a few bucks and access to the internet.
Triangulation – Another sophisticated method of getting access to funds, triangulation requires the criminal to operate from a website, where he/she will set up a legit-looking auction site or online shop. The customer, enticed by the big discounts and other benefits offered (such as receiving goods before having the payment processed), will enter his name, address, and valid credit card details on the site, waiting anxiously for his goods to arrive.
After fraudsters receive the credit card info, they use it to order the products from the legitimate website, but still using a stolen credit card, only applying the details they have just obtained from the last customer. They then proceed to order more goods in his/her name, causing great confusion for authorities, diversion which allows them to continue spending the cash and accumulating a large amount of goods until the account is closed. The websites from which criminals operate are then closed and new ones are opened, making it almost impossible for the police to catch the fraudsters before they manage to get more credit card numbers.
Credit Card Generators – This is, perhaps, the most ingenious and highly accessible fraud method, using computer programs to generate valid credit card numbers and expiry details. To put it simple, the generator works by producing a list of credit card account numbers from an existing one, using the Luhn formula (algorithm created by scientist Hans Peter Luhn to prevent accidental errors in validating identification numbers). The first generations of card generators were able to produce up to 999 valid card numbers from a single account number, but the latest devices are able to create tens of thousands of credit card numbers at once.
Staying Protected: Difficult, but Still Possible
As you can see, credit card fraud comes in many forms, and being protected at all times against such complex illicit activities is becoming almost impossible. Here are some precaution measures you can apply to minimize the risk of becoming a victim:
- Avoid making transactions on public computers
- Check the legitimacy of merchant websites
- Protect PINs, passwords, and credit card details
- Keep credit cards and ATM cards safe, out of the reach of potential wrongdoers
- Don’t give out personal information or credit card details via mail or phone unless you’ve made sure the call is made from a trusted source
- Always check your bank and credit card statements for suspicious transactions.
These tips aren’t foolproof, and they will not ensure your 100% protection against credit card fraud, but if you can at least create some obstacles or make it more difficult for criminals to access your funds, it’s certainly worth the trouble. Remember to contact authorities and call your credit card issuer as soon as you notice your card or account details have been stolen – the sooner you do this, the greater the chance to limit losses and catch criminals.
About the Author
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Her work in fraud and domestic violence cases has been recognized at a national level, propelling her toward wide recognition and appreciation in the legal community.