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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 October, 2003, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK
Gangs preying on cash machines
By Chris Summers and Sarah Toyne
BBC News Online

People are being warned of a new threat from organised crime gangs, many of them from Romania, who are targeting cash machines and stealing millions of pounds each year.

The crooks are using pinhole cameras, card skimmers and other gadgets to obtain personal identification numbers, card details and in many cases the cards themselves, from customers.

Detective Inspector Roger Cook, head of the City of London Police's Cheque and Credit Card Unit, said cash machine fraud had cost the banks more than 30m so far this year.

He said the gangs - some of which are also involved in human trafficking and prostitution - were becoming more and more sophisticated and were spreading out across the UK.

The Lebanese loop is easy to make
They began by using "Lebanese loops" - home-made devices which make the customer think the machine has swallowed the card, only for the crooks to nab them after the victim has walked off.

But they have moved on to card skimmers - fake devices which are taped onto the doors of cash machine foyers - and card slot readers.

Now they are even using pinhole cameras stuck onto machines.

Det Insp Cook said: "They can be sitting in a car nearby with a laptop computer linked to the camera, and they can clearly see the PIN numbers of their victims' cards."

Cash machine fraud is on the rise
He told BBC News Online the gangs usually operated in groups of between two and five, and often employed asylum seekers.

He said: "Very often they are brought in illegally and they pay their debts off to the organised criminals by doing these scams.

"People come off the train or ferry in the morning and they are already out being trained to do it by the same evening."

He said the fraudsters had spread out from London down the M4 to the West Country and gone nationwide.

"This has been described as a victimless crime, because the banks pay up. But it's not true.

"Those customers whose cards are stolen suffer a great deal of stress and uncertainty not knowing when or where their card is going to turn up," he said.

Cost of ATM fraud
1997 - 8.2m
1998 - 9.7m
1999 - 12.2m
2000 - 18.3m
2001 - 21.2m
2002 - 29.1m
Jan-Oct 2003: More than 30m

Many banks have begun replacing swipe entry for cash machine foyers with different systems.

Last year the leading banks agreed to jointly fund a specialist unit, the Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit (DCPCU), to target counterfeiters and card crooks.

The cash machine network Link reported 2,000 incidents this year nationwide.

But in many incidents, such as those involving skimmers, hundreds of cards may have been compromised.

Fraud at ATMs had increased significantly in the last five years.

Det Insp Cook says the technology is quite simple
An increasingly common problem is "shoulder surfing" - where criminals watch as a PIN number is entered then steal the card using either a Lebanese loop or a door swipe.

Earlier this year Barclays and HSBC in Manchester began piloting a scheme designed to stop shoulder surfing.

It involved painting a yellow box around ATMs to give the person using the machine privacy.

The DCPCU has begun a number of initiatives to combat cash machine fraud, including fitting more CCTV cameras to deter criminals and installing tamper-proof machines.

Last week the banks, under the umbrella of the Association for Payment Clearing Services (Apacs), began rolling out new "chip and PIN" cards to replace the 122 million old-style cards.

Card skimmers cost as little as 1,000
The cards, which have a microchip instead of a magnetic strip, are supposed to be harder for criminals to misuse.

Apacs communications manager, Jemma Smith, said the chip and PIN cards would be harder to reproduce.

But Det Insp Cook said while the new cards would help to combat retail fraud it would not affect cash machine fraud.

Ms Smith admitted ATM (automatic teller machine) fraud would not be eradicated until all magnetic strip cards had been replaced and old-style cash machines replaced by new ones which read only the chips.

In the mean time she had this advice: "Don't use a machine if there is anybody behaving suspicously around it. If you see anything at a cashpoint that looks like it has been tampered with don't use it and call the police."

She said: "Banks are very well aware of the need to check their cash machines regularly."

Tips on using machines

She said criminals were more liklely to prey on terminals which were unattended and isolated, such as those at supermarkets and petrol stations.

The DCPCU gives this general advice to ATM customers:

  • Before entering your card check the machine to see if there is anything stuck to it or anything that looks unusual. If so do not use the machine and report it to the bank or police immediately.

  • Use your free hand to cover the PIN pad to prevent anyone seeing your PIN as you key it in.

  • If you are distracted by anyone when using a cash machine cancel the transaction and try to recover the card.

  • If the machine does not return your card, report it immediately to your card issuer.

  • Check your bank statements to make sure money is not being taken from your account using a counterfeit card.

    Detective Inspector Roger Cook
    "The banks and ourselves are working together to target these people"

    National roll-out for chip cards
    02 Oct 03  |  Business
    Security hole in cash machines
    10 Oct 02  |  Wales

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