BARTOW — As if to demonstrate that criminals have gotten increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to rob local residents — or, conversely, that not all high tech advances have been good ones — the Polk County Sheriff’s Office has issued a “skimmer” alert, that thefts from computerized skimming devices have been reported in Bartow, Mulberry, and Haines City.
These devices, places on two Publix supermarket ATMs — one in Bartow, the other in Mulberry — and two Mid-Florida Credit Union ATMs, in Bartow and Haines City — have led to numerous complaints from area residents who used those teller machines to get cash, not knowing they were being set up for an identity theft crime in the meantime.
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time, nor the last time, that we will see this trend in our county,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. “Criminals are placing these skimmers on ATMs all across the state.”
Skimmers are device readers that criminals put on ATMs or other machines used by the public as card readers, such as gas pumps, for swiping debit or credit cards.
“A trained eye can detect if a skimmer has been placed on such a device,” noted Carrie Eleazer, public information officer for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. “Skimmers are almost always accompanied by tiny cameras that record the customer entering his or her PIN number after swiping the card.”
Because of the increasing use of these skimming devices to rob consumers of their credit or debit card information, law enforcement agencies have started working with business owners to do routine examinations of their card reader machines, and check and see if skimmers have been placed within them, Eleazer noted.
“A well-trained eye or physical inspection of the device is key to locating a skimmer,” Eleazer noted.
Credit card fraud has become a major problem in the United States, and the Federal Trade Commission notes that while identity theft crimes have held steady in the past few years, there’s been a 21 percent increase in credit card fraud since 2008.
On its Web site, the Federal Bureau of Investigation notes that ATM crimes are a growing problem, and that in 2010, two brothers from Bulgaria were charged in U.S. federal court in New York with using stolen bank account information to defraud two banks of more than $1 million. They had used skimming devices on New York City ATMs to record customers’ account information and PINs, create their own bank cards, and steal from the customer accounts.
“The devices planted on ATMs are usually undetectable by users,” the FBI notes. “The makers of this equipment have become very adept at creating them, often from plastic or plaster, so that they blend right into the ATM’s façade.”
Skimming devices usually have a hidden camera that records the customers’ entering of their PIN numbers into the ATM’s keypad.
“Skimming devices are installed for short periods of time — usually just a few hours — so they’re often attached to an ATM by nothing more than double-sided tape,” the FBI notes. “They are then removed by the criminals, who download the stolen account information and encode it onto blank cards. The cards are used to make withdrawals from victims’ accounts at other ATMs.”
However, if high technology as opened up opportunities for criminals, it has also provided resources to law enforcement agencies as well, including the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, which released a series of photos to the media of two men caught on video surveillance cameras at the ATMs that had skimming devices attached to them.
Eleazer said the men in the photos were “captured on video surveillance, possibly placing skimmers on the aforementioned ATMs,” and the sheriff’s office is asking the public to check out the photos and contact law enforcement if they recognize the men captured in them.
They can call the Bartow Police Department at 863-534-5034, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office at 863-421-3266, or Heartland Crime Stoppers at 1-800-226-TIPS. They can also log on to www.heartlandcrimestoppers.com to find out how to provide a tip through the Internet.
Anyone with information who wants to remain anonymous can still be eligible for a cash reward if their tip leads to an arrest in this skimming case.
iPhone and Droid users can download a free tip submit app to anonymously report crime. To install these free apps, log on to www.tipsoft.com.
Judd said he hopes the public takes the time to review the photos, and assist the investigation — before they become the next victims of skimming devices.
“Our best resource for catching criminals like these is you – the public,” Judd said. “We need your eyes and ears. Let us know if you see anything suspicious on a card reader or an ATM, or if you recognize the suspect seen here.”
If they do, he said, the criminals won’t be operating much longer, and will end up in the Polk County Jail.
“Together,” Judd said, “we can stop this crime trend.”
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