“Every kid that I have hooked up for skimming credit cards has looked like the sweetest person,” said Detective Blythe Miniken, a 12-year veteran of the King County Sheriff’s Office who investigates cases of fraud.
“Most of them are sweet kids who are just not using their head.”
According to Detective Miniken, more and more teenagers and young adults are being recruited to steal the information encoded in your credit card using a machine that is legal to own and easy to buy.
The machine, which can fit in the palm of your hand, is called a skimmer and retrieves your name, card number, and other important data in a single swipe.
“The people that are skimming cards, these are not the hardened criminals,” Detective Miniken said. “They’ve been recruited by someone who has the criminal history. They’re, honestly, probably not that wise to the ways of the world.”
Melinda Young, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, said single parents who need money are common targets.
“They’re usually looking for people who will do things without a whole lot of questions,” she said.
Those who work in the food service industry are more likely to be pulled into the scheme because of their easy and frequent access to customer bank cards, according to Detective Miniken.
“You’ll order your cup of coffee, you’ll order your food and then you’ll pay for it. The person who is going to skim your card, they will then take your credit card away from you at some point, they’ll run it through for the legitimate transaction that you’re paying for and then they will also capture data on the [magnetic] strip with a handheld skimmer.”
The person who swipes your card, referred to by law enforcement as a “skimmer,” has often been promised items such as an iPod, laptop, or gift card in exchange for collecting an agreed upon amount of card numbers – gifts that are typically paid for using the stolen information.
Once the skimmer has gathered enough data, the machine is returned to the head of the operation or a middleman who will encode the stolen numbers on new cards to be used in fraudulent purchases.
Detective Miniken said such operations happen “everywhere, absolutely everywhere,” even at the largest restaurant chains in the country.
“Basically any place you give your credit card to someone, it could be happening there,” she said. “There is someone in charge of this and they’ll have girls and guys at four or five or six different restaurants.”
Young, head of the Economic Crimes Unit at the King County Prosecutor’s Office, said the most sophisticated operations use stolen information to fund gang activity. She has also encountered cases where data was traded on the street for narcotics.
“They’re almost always part of a larger operation, and sometimes it can be a very sophisticated international crime ring,” she said. “We’re starting to see it more and more and more. I’d say in the last four years, it’s started to become increasingly popular as the skimmers themselves become smaller and more portable.”
Detective Miniken said there is no way to know if your card has been run through a skimming machine until fraudulent purchases are made and detected.
“Over time it adds up,” she said. “These kids are getting hundreds of card numbers, thousands of card numbers in their job and it all comes down to how quickly the banks catch on.”
Those who are arrested and prosecuted for skimming could face a felony identify theft charge for each time they swiped a card.
The standard range for second-degree identify theft is zero to 90 days in jail, while those convicted on 10 counts or more can face 43 to 57 months in prison. If prosecutors can prove that the theft resulted in a loss greater than $1,500, the charge is identity theft in the first degree.
While officials work diligently to arrest and prosecute the person in charge of the operation, it is often the low-level skimmers who end up behind bars.
“Most of them have never thought it through. In general, they’re not that slick,” said Detective Miniken. “They’re kids that are just doing something stupid and they got caught.”
While it is difficult to avoid skimmers, Detective Miniken suggests using a credit card rather than a debit card when cash is not available and pay close attention to the person swiping your card. She said consumers should monitor bank statements and report unauthorized purchases to their financial institution before calling police.