Credit card skimmers are a growing problem, according to experts at Lake Michigan Credit Union. Seals like this one are a way to ensure gas pumps haven’t been tampered with by scammers.

Credit card skimmers are a growing problem, according to experts at Lake Michigan Credit Union. Seals like this one are a way to ensure gas pumps haven’t been tampered with by scammers.

File photo by Tiffany Esshaki

Quantity trumps quality when it comes to financial safeguards

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published February 7, 2018

METRO DETROIT — According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft complaints nationwide nearly doubled between 2010 and 2015 — and that’s a conservative estimate, since there were likely thousands of incidents during that time that were never reported.

If you think those numbers have tapered off since then, think again: Cases of financial crimes and identity theft — which can include anything from forged checks to stolen credit card numbers and even fraudulently obtained lines of credit — continue to grow.

“The reason we’re seeing so much of this is because it’s low risk and high reward for these individuals,” explained Christopher Hess, supervisory senior resident agent of the FBI’s Detroit Metropolitan Identity Theft and Financial Crimes Task Force. “We’re seeing more and more organized efforts to facilitate ID theft; it’s not just simple access of a credit card or simple stealing of mail anymore. These are very sophisticated, organized groups that feed off this information, and there’s a black market for it as well.”

Though these savvy scammers are quick to evolve along with new safeguards put in place by financial institutions, Hess said users shouldn’t throw their hands up in the air. Any protections you can put in place to keep your information safe are better than nothing — and the more you implement, the better.

“Don’t leave things visible in your car, like your purse, to make it tempting for (thieves) to break in and get your information,” he said. “And when you use your information online, like for shopping, make sure it’s a site you trust.”

He added that bankers should embrace mobile banking apps to keep track of their spending and catch when something looks amiss.

Tania Elonzae, branch manager for Lake Michigan Credit Union, of Farmington Hills, said people should take that advice a step further and keep close watch on their credit score as well.

“LMCU offers members a discount to LifeLock, which is a great resource to deter identity theft,” she said of the credit monitoring service. “(And) members should always utilize to review their reports annually, free of charge. Being proactive is the best way to avoid fraud.”

As of late, Elonzae said, the biggest issue her bankers have been dealing with is skimmers on ATMs. The devices look no different from regular credit card readers that you’d use to make everyday purchases, like buying gas. But the skimmers relay credit and debit card numbers to criminals off-site, who often use the stolen information so quickly that the victim doesn’t know they’ve been had until it’s too late. 

LMCU staff does daily security checks on all of the ATMs at their locations, and they encourage retailers to do the same with their equipment. Elonzae added that the credit union is always looking for advanced ways to keep information safe, like chips on credit and debit cards that store information on a circuit, and most recently, requiring multifactor authentication for online and mobile banking app logins.

The best tool many of us have, though, is our intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, there’s no shame in holding off on a purchase until you can be absolutely sure your information is safe.

“Phishing scams are also increasing, so we try to educate our members on the importance of not providing account details to anyone over the phone unless they’re 100 percent positive they know who they’re speaking with (is legitimate),” Elonzae said. “If a member receives an unexpected phone call requesting them to verify account information, they should contact the credit union (or bank) directly or stop in to their local branch before providing any information over the phone.”

LMCU also has policies in place to be sure incoming calls about member accounts are made by legitimate members and not scammers.

But when all of this fails, the work isn’t done. Customers should always contact their financial institution as soon as possible after they notice a fraud has taken place so that alerts can be put on their accounts to prevent further damage. 

And then, of course, it’s time to call the police. While many of these cases can’t be successfully prosecuted because of scammers calling from outside of local jurisdictional limits, every case is different, and you never know when these keen criminals will be brought to justice.

“From my seat here, and we’re housed in Oakland County with partners in local departments, there’s been a significant rise in cases that come across my desk for me to assign investigators,” Hess said.