Identity Swiped! Guarding against High-Tech Scams

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Identity theft. It is a crime that hits millions of Americans each year and thieves are coming up with new ways to rob consumers every day, including using the latest technology.

In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 1.8 million complaints from consumers. Fifteen percent of those complaints involved some type of identity theft.

When it comes to shopping, just swiping with a credit or debit card is the way to pay in today's fast-paced world.

Identity Swiped

"We always use our card. We don't use cash at all. It's just as easy to just pull a card out and swipe it than use cash," Chuck Chalfant, in Virginia Beach, Va., said.

Chalfant said he has always enjoyed using his check card to pay for everything, from gas to groceries.

But that made him an easy target for identity thieves.

"He said your account has been hacked. Somebody in New Jersey had randomly gotten her (wife's) debit card number," he told CBN News.

Crooks had gone on a shopping spree and used his wife's stolen debit card information to run up charges to their checking account.

"They randomly got her number and hit our account. I think it was about eight or 10 times, $65 here, $88 here," Chalfant said.

"We hadn't noticed because it was all like bang, bang, bang, bang in just a series of a couple days," he explained.

Skimming Crimes

According to the FTC, identity theft has topped the list of consumer complaints 12 years in a row. Nearly 27,000 complaints had been filed or identified in 2011 alone.

Something known as skimming at ATM machines and gas stations has become all too common. Identity thieves purchase the devices right off of the Internet. Some thieves even make them.

Police told CBN News that thieves usually target the gas pumps that are nearest the outside of the gas station or far away from the attendant. They then insert a skimming device over the card reader and when you go to swipe your card to pay for gas, your personal information has just been stolen.

The consumer's stolen information is then transferred onto unused-pre-approved credit cards or blank gift cards.

Tammy Baderman, with the Virginia Beach Police Department, said the identity theft crimes happen at restaurants, too.

"An unscrupulous waiter can walk away with your credit card and take a picture of it with a phone, write down the information," she commented.

Crime at Your Fingertips

Sgt. Margie Hobbs said crooks are also using new technology to their advantage.

"As people are becoming more and more techno savvy, they're going to develop even better devices with which to gather people's information and it's got to be designed to look believable," she told CBN News.

For example, thieves can now use heat generated from your fingertips on ATM key pads to steal your card pin number using high-tech infrared cameras.

They can also tap into accounts via credit cards that contain a radio frequency identification or RFID chip. This chip allows consumers the ease of just waving the card at the register.

Scam artists can buy parts that increase the frequency or the strength of the antenna in the card. This allows them to pick up your credit card information from a foot or more away.

Hobbs said tracking the perpetrators is challenging because often the operations are well coordinated.

"It's very difficult and one thing," she said. "There's also the ones that go all up and down the East Coast, committing these crimes. And by the time you start getting a tail on them, they move to another state starting all over again."

Protecting Yourself

Security consultants suggest using credit cards instead of debit cards to prevent such scams, that way you're risking the credit card company's money instead of your own.

Here are a few other ways to protect against being scammed:

  1. Freeze your credit. This allows you to lock your credit data, which makes it virtually impossible for an identity thief to open any new accounts in your name. You can un-freeze it at any time.
  2. Hire a company such as LifeLock to monitor and protect your credit.
  3. Cut up pre-approved credit card offers that come in the mail. Don't just throw them away
  4. When at the ATM, make sure no one is looking over your shoulder. Consider using a pen or pencil to key in your number.
  5. Alert bank officials if you notice a hidden camera or if the card reader appears loose.

Sgt. Hobbs said businesses can do more to protect their customers as well.

"By asking identification identifying the information of the person you're dealing with would also lessen the economic hit to that company and to the victim," Hobbs said.

Part of Life Today?

Chalfant's bank eventually restored the funds that were stolen from his account.

But he said it was frustrating knowing that more isn't being done to protect consumers from these types of crimes.

"It just feels like, what in the world, you know?" he said. "That the credit union, 'Oh, you got hacked? Yeah, we're going to reimburse your money.' The police: Sorry you got hacked. We're doing the best we can.'"

"Who knows -- that it's that big that it's almost expected, this is going to happen to people," he said. "It's just a sad situation that we've come to this."

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Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at Facebook.com/CharleneIsraelCBNNews.