'Skimmers' threaten area ATM users' funds

Copying devices found at California Avenue Wells Fargo in Palo Alto, and elsewhere

ATM users beware — cash machines can harbor an illegal credit- or bank-card copying device, known as a "skimmer."

The Peninsula is experiencing a jump in skimming cases, which started around March 13, Los Altos Police Sgt. Matt Hartley announced.

But the instances were not made public by police until Monday.

On March 15, a man using an ATM at California Avenue's Wells Fargo bank branch in Palo Alto spotted a skimmer on the bank-card slot, Palo Alto police Det. Kara Salazar said Monday.

Los Altos police have also recently recovered skimming devices on ATMs at the ARCO gas station at San Antonio Road and Loucks Avenue and at the Bank of America at South San Antonio Road and Hawthorne Avenue, Hartley said.

The number of cases "suggest it's an organized group," Hartley said.

Once thieves obtain credit card information, they can access accounts from other ATMs to withdraw cash, he said.

After hearing reports from other agencies, Los Altos police tracked a spate of fraud reports to the San Antonio Road gas station, where they discovered the skimming device, Hartley said.

Palo Alto police, who did not notify the public about the Wells Fargo incident, heard about it Wednesday, March 19, when the bank notified the department.

An alert Wells Fargo customer, who had recently read about skimming devices, on March 15 noticed that one of the bank's ATMs looked different than the others, Salazar said. He pried off the device and tried to place it through a slot on the bank's door because the bank was closed, Salazar said. When that didn't work, he mailed it to Wells Fargo, which reported the incident to the police March 19, four days after the man discovered the skimmer.

Hartley said he is working with credit card holders who have been affected. Salazar said she expects the bank will use its databases to determine how many customers have been compromised.

She said the bank and police hope to determine how long the skimmer was attached to the California Avenue ATM.

But Wells Fargo customers shouldn't be especially concerned, Salazar said.

"I don't think they should be worried about that ATM in particular. You've got to educate yourself that this type of device is out there and be alert," she said.

All bank customers should regularly monitor their accounts and quickly report unauthorized uses, Salazar and Hartley agreed.

ATM users may even be able to spot skimming devices, which are typically thin devices that fit over the top of the credit card slot, Hartley said. Sometimes they also cover the number keys.

Some skimmers can send information wirelessly while others need to be removed before the thieves can access the credit-card codes, Hartley said.

Skimmers that are handheld or attach to a cash register have been more common in Palo Alto than ATM skimmers, Salazar said. Handheld skimmers can be used in restaurants, she said. She said thieves sometimes manufacture new cards using the stolen information.

Skimming cases are challenging for law-enforcement agencies because often they only receive reports of unauthorized credit-card use. Often, data from a large number of customers reporting fraud is needed to pinpoint a particular device or thief, Salazar said.

Hartley said recent ATM skimming cases have been reported in San Bruno, San Francisco and Mountain View.

"It's not that common and it's not that common in Palo Alto," Salazar said.

"Customer funds are safe at Wells Fargo," spokeswoman Michele Ashley said in an e-mailed statement Monday. "Wells Fargo is thoroughly investigating this matter. We cannot discuss the situation as doing so could jeopardize the investigation."


Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 24, 2008 at 11:10 pm

Why did the police wait so long to alert us?

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 24, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Some of this information is old because I was heard about the problems at the Arco Station on San Antonio four months ago. That's why I always use cash to buy my gas!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 25, 2008 at 9:40 am

What does a skimmer look like?

Like this comment
Posted by KL
a resident of another community
on Mar 25, 2008 at 10:28 am

Here's a good example of what a skimmer looks like:
Web Link

My question is, don't they have cameras in place around ATMs? Why can't they catch the thieves trying to install these?

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 25, 2008 at 10:49 am

Thanks for this link, KL. The skimmer looks pretty real. I don't think I'd recognize it as a skimmer vs. the real ATM card slot.

Like this comment
Posted by ATM 4U
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 25, 2008 at 11:34 am

Criminals cash in on ATM crime
Web Link

ATM Fraud or ATM feature?
Web Link

A skimmer in position
Web Link

The skimmer fitting on the ATM machine
Web Link

The camera to capture your pin number
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by JP
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 25, 2008 at 1:02 pm

I agree with everyone that the police should have alerted the citizens a long time ago. I only pump gas at that particular Arco station and always use my debit card. Usually its on my way to work and I am in too much of a hurry to notice any differences with the ATMs. I will definately have to be more cautious in the future.

Thanks for the pictures of what this device looks like.

Like this comment
Posted by Nate
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 25, 2008 at 1:26 pm

This is a good reminder to always cover your hand as you type your PIN. Without your PIN, your card's information is worthless to the thieves.

2 people like this
Posted by ATM Images
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Mar 26, 2008 at 8:22 pm

Why hasn't the police departments released the photos of the suspects to the media to assist them with identifying the suspects? They must have images of the suspects by now since the suspects used the information at other other ATMs. I am not sure the local police can solve this one alone? I am sure the public can assist more than they know. I would suspect that the suspect is not your local criminal that they know.

Like this comment
Posted by V
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2008 at 8:28 am

I think the reason people don't alert us is for the same reason they don't alert us about many other crimes - panic. I don't feel it's right for them to hold on this kind of information, especially when we pay an arm and a leg to live here and many of us work hard to keep the community clean - outreach and what not.

Like this comment
Posted by Bookem DannO
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 27, 2008 at 9:08 am

It is not so much panic as it is fear. The police fear the judgment of the public at their incompetence to track and capture these criminals.

There is this need for them to present themselves at the powerful blue line against the criminal element. Remember perception is reality. Too bad perception doesn't do the leg work to arrest these criminals.

To most of us it would be simple to use the bank ATM camera to see who these criminals are or observe the videos of them walking into the bank for an over the counter transaction.

I am tired of these over priced flat foots not working for their living. If this sounds like too much work remember the criminals will adapt, adjust and overcome. You, the police should be hard at work out thinking them.

Part of that thinking should involve the public that is knowledgeable, watchful and willing to assist in areas where you need the help.

Like this comment
Posted by Eric
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 27, 2008 at 10:10 am

I notice Wells Fargo has installed new ATMs at California Avenue and Midtown. Was this scam done with the old ATMs or the new ones?

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2008 at 11:05 am

Still sore about that parking ticket, huh Bookem?

Like this comment
Posted by Bookem DannO
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 27, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Not exactly Mike,

I am concerned with something beyond your hat size. Specifically that this type of operation is organized and planned. This "skimming" device is beyond the practical capability of your average thief. Based on the photos seen here in this thread it is manufactured from injected molded plastic requiring sophisticated and expensive machine tools, the device is embedded with high tech electronics well beyond the common bank robbers knowledge. Furthermore, there is a high probability that the criminal is conducting surveillance of the ATM machine while the skimmer is in place. This also injects, the likelihood that surveillance took place prior to the placement of the skimming device.

Now with that said these people are criminals and what you should be concerned with is what other type of crimes are possible with these charming people? Or to you is this just another low priority non-violent property crime?

It is imperative they are caught and prosecuted. At the least we should know what they look like and the ATM camera can show us their lovely faces. Palo Alto online should have the picture or pictures up on this site now.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2008 at 1:32 pm

Anybody savvy enough to operate a sophisticated scam like this would be smart enough to evade an ATM security camera. Armchair policework is the easiest and least productive kind; don't call cops flat foots until you can walk in their shoes.

Like this comment
Posted by Yo Tango ATM
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Mar 27, 2008 at 5:54 pm

Looks like this has been happening for sometime.

CBS News December 6, 2002
Web Link

California prosecutor Howard Wise tells Bowen,
"At that time, frankly, I thought skimmers were an urban myth." - Guess Not. in 2004
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Watch Out
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 28, 2008 at 6:26 am

Fraud is so prevalent in Europe now that most people don't even use credit cards anymore. Their credit/debit card companies are way ahead of us in providing new technologies to secure their cards. I tried to pay for a dinner in London with cash and they wouldn't accept my 5 Pound notes because there is so much forgery!! All this is coming to us now!!!

Like this comment
Posted by KT
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2008 at 12:02 am

Skimmers are nothing new. Just beware of ATM machines where you have to swipe your card through the machine instead of inserting it into a slot. They were a big thing on the east coast a couple of summers ago and cost some banks a lot of money. Also, beware in restaurants....they will take your card and read/keep your information; next thing you know there are three of you that are spending your entire life savings in a few days. That could be a small fortune for some Palo Altoans.

Like this comment
Posted by GotMeToo
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 29, 2008 at 1:12 pm

I was one of the unlucky ones to have my card number "captured". I happened to speak with a Los Altos police officer, and he confirmed that several sites in the area had been hit, and that the thieves have been stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars here and in Los Angeles in the past couple of weeks. Some camera, somewhere, MUST have taken a recognizable picture! I hope they catch them soon and throw away the key!

Like this comment
Posted by econsplash
a resident of another community
on Apr 8, 2008 at 3:04 pm

To clarify the post from KT: Skimmers can be attached to both "swipe" as well as "slot" type ATMs. As "RedBox" <Web Link; just announced, this can occur on other machines other than an ATM, and without using your PIN (skimmers have the ability to read your credit cards, which does not require a PIN).

Like this comment
Posted by Shane
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2008 at 2:13 pm

This happened to be over this past weekend (Apr. 19). After having been on vacation in Vegas and New Orleans, I am not sure where the skimmer picked up my card, but I believe it was more than likely here in the Bay Area (since we used cash and credit cards mostly on the trip). Someone made a duplicate copy of my ATM card and physically used it at a Walgreens store in a suburb of Chicago on Sat. They bought $490 worth of goods. We ate at a restaurant in Redwood City that day, and Bank of America realized we couldn't be in two places at the same time and reversed the charges, called us immediately and cancelled the card. I am thankful to them that they were on top of it. I usually only withdraw cash out of one particular bank near my house and buy my gas at the same gas station (not Arco by the way). I would guess it was an unscrupulous person at a restaurant somewhere that kept a copy of my card.

Like this comment
Posted by Jon
a resident of another community
on Apr 29, 2008 at 2:21 pm

I was on vacation in New Orleans last weekend (Apr. 25th) and this happened to me. I took out $60 and someone had two subsequent $200 withdrawals from the same ATM. I assume someone is preying on the large crowds in town for Jazzfest.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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