Scammed by Skimming Scum

My children and I took a brief trip to Ottawa, Ontario last month, and when we returned I thought I’d get on the computer and have a look at the balance in my bank account, just to see how much we enjoyed it.

It’s a good thing I checked. In addition to the charges for our hotel and a couple of dinners, there was a $63.98 payment to Edible Arrangements, and a $90.00 payout to Topman.com, which I subsequently learned is a British fashion company.

I’m reasonably confident I’d remember making an order from Edible Arrangements. As for Topman.com, well, rabbis shop for pork more frequently than I buy clothing. And since I have never, ever purchased anything via the Internet, I decided to give my friends at the Credit Union a call.

Until recently I thought a skimmer was either a long-handled apparatus used to remove grass, leaves, and insects from the surface of swimming pools or a small, flat rock that, when flung skillfully, skips off the surface of a lake multiple times.

However, currently skimmers are also devices used by criminals to grab data off a credit card's magnetic stripe. Nearly undetectable, once it is placed inside an ATM, gas pump or similar machine a skimmer can harvest data from anyone unwittingly using their card (debit or credit) to buy groceries, purchase gas, or make an electronic withdrawal from their bank account.

Anyone who surreptitiously inserts this apparatus has to come back to the compromised machine to pick up the file containing all the stolen data, but with that information he or she can create cloned cards, or steal money directly from bank accounts.

The woman I spoke to at my financial institution was both patient and helpful. When I told her I didn’t do any business with Edible Arrangements or Topman.com she took me at my word. She instructed to me to fill out a form contesting the bogus charges. She also mentioned there may have been some additional items charged to my card.

The folks at the local credit union office were prepared for me when I arrived to sign the appropriate papers the next day. However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the list of charges the person(s) who hijacked my information had made before their deception was discovered.

There were eight purchases from DunkinDonuts.com, totaling $320.

Etsy.com, an online jewelry company I’d never heard of, received three orders, totaling $680.25.

Fry’s Electronics, a software retailer based in San Jose, CA, got a $267.09 order.

There was a $780 charge from Selfridges, a high-end department store based in England. And to top it off there was a combined $816.23 worth of clothing purchased from RalphLauren.com and MrPorter.com, an apparently chic clothier with offices in New York, London, and Hong Kong. The total damage, including Topman.com and Edible Arrangements, came to over $3000! (Full disclosure: it was a tiny bit higher, but the $24.63 charge from a the Subway in Intervale, New Hampshire was legitimate: the boys and I had lunch there en route home.)

The folks at the credit union and Visa were accommodating and understanding about my misfortune, but it was still a tough lesson. It seems using one’s debit card to buy gasoline is a risky proposition, and particularly on weekends, since thieves who use skimmers know most people can’t get through to their local banks to report a problem before Monday morning, even if they become aware their information has been compromised.

Even more ironic in my case: if my Fairy Godmother dropped $3000 mad money from the sky and ordered me to spend it, not one dime would go toward expensive clothing, jewelry, electronics, or donuts.

I now have a slightly better understanding of why credit card companies charge the interest they do, since at least part of those usurious rates undoubtedly go toward compensating for the tens of thousands of cases of fraud they absorb each month. According to ACI Worldwide, an electronics payment systems company, 46% of Americans have had their credit card information compromised in the past five years. It’s also estimated that there’s a new identity theft victim every two seconds.

What I’ve learned: I’ll be gassing up my car with cash for a while. And if I happen to run into a nattily-attired, bejeweled individual with donut crumbs on his (or her) designer suit who’s listening to an expensive electronic device, well, he (or she) is going to have some explaining to do.

Andy Young
July 27, 2017

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