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NEWS | May 19, 2010

Don't be a victim of 'skimming'

By 2nd Lt. Ashleigh Peck Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Imagine yourself getting a phone call from your bank telling you that while you were working at Joint Base Charleston, your card was charged for more than $500 at a Wal-mart in Georgia.

After finding herself in this situation, Airman 1st Class Alexandra Hoachlander, 1st Combat Camera Squadron combat photographer, realized she had been a victim of skimming.

"Skimmers" have hit at least 10 ATMs in Columbia, Charleston and the Low Country in just the first quarter of this year, said Michael Williams, South Carolina Secret Service Agent in Charge. A vast majority of those 10 are located in the Charleston area, he said.

The equipment used to capture an ATM card number and PIN is skillfully masked to look like normal ATM equipment. A "skimmer" is mounted to the front of the normal ATM card slot that reads the ATM card number, while a wireless camera is disguised to look like a leaflet holder and is mounted in a position to view ATM PIN entries.

According to an April 2010 press release by the U.S. Secret Service, when a credit card is skimmed, data on the card, including the account number, is electronically transmitted or stored. The credit card information can then be encoded onto a lost, stolen or counterfeit credit card and used anywhere in the world.

Airman Hoachlander is not the only person on base this has happened to.

Special Agent Gilbert Rivera, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Detachment 310 special agent in charge, found himself in a similar situation in May.

"I pride myself in being alert and yet, because I was in a hurry, I let it happen to me," said Agent Rivera.

Agent Rivera got a call from his bank five days after using an out-of-the-way gas station. The bank informed him that his card had been charged twice at two different Publix grocery stores in Miami, Florida, for a total of $400 in withdrawals.

He shares his experience to help others understand this can happen to anyone.

Agent Williams recommends a few ways to avoid being a victim of skimming. Use ATMs inside or very close to bank offices because crooks target ATM machines which are more isolated. He also recommends examining the ATM machine to see if the card reader or keyboard is loose or bulging and look at nearby brochure racks for cameras. If nothing else, shield the keyboard as you're entering your password.

Use ATM machines that have readers with blinking lights. The lights are a new security feature and "skimmers" have not found a way to work around the feature yet, said Agent Rivera.

As a defensive action, check your statements at least once a week for fraudulent charges and change your password if you suspect your data was taken or compromised, said Agent Williams. The number of ATM machine skimmer cases in South Carolina so far this year is already well past 2009's statewide total.

"Be very mindful of where you use your cards and exercise diligence in order to protect yourself as consumers," said Agent Williams.

"It can happen to anyone unless you stay in the game and stay alert," said Agent Rivera.

After her experience, Airman Hoachlander said, "I never thought my information would get stolen, I will definitely think twice before I give it out again."

If you suspect you may be a possible victim of skimming or other financial fraud, contact local police and the U.S. Secret Service Columbia Field Office at 803-772-4015.