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By Miriam Raftery

Photo:  skimming device recovered by La Mesa Police Department

December 14, 2022 (San Diego’s East County) – Skimming devices attached by thieves to ATM machines and credit card devices have stolen money from consumers in multiple East County locations. Some even have tiny hidden cameras stealing pin codes.

Lieutenant Katy Lynch with the La Mesa Police department confirms, “It’s definitely a trend.” LMPD has launched a campaign to educate merchants and the public on how to protect consumers and help nab thieves behind these schemes.

In La Mesa alone, 12 cases of skimming have been reported in the past year, with others in adjacent communities. “Many cases go unreported to law enforcement,” says Lt. Lynch. She urges anyone who is a victim of a skimming scam, or who believes they have spotted a skimmer, to immediately alert law enforcement. 

Showing a police report to banks or other financial institutions can help consumers recover money faster and also helps law enforcement catch the crooks, such as by identifying fingerprints or DNA on skimmers, and by asking businesses for surveillance videos. Businesses are encouraged to check their devices daily and report anything suspicious.

Victims speak out

On social media, residents are posting about their nightmare-before-Christmas victimizations.

Lisa Black posted on the La Mesa Happenings forum that the morning after using the ATM at Bank of America at Grossmont Center several days ago, “My bank account was cleaned out! No one else had access to my card or pin number so be very careful…It’s a horrible feeling to be left with $3 after just getting paid and it’s two weeks before Christmas.” 

Alex Metz posted, “The same thing happened to me at that ATM last month.  I was able to get all of my money back though, after filing a claim with BoA, probably because they could check the ATM footage and confirm I wasn’t the same person who made the withdrawal.”  Others said they had heard of similar complaints about that same ATM, but Lt. Lynch said she was unaware of any reports to LMPD  about skimmers at this location.

Athena K. posted on Facebook several days ago, “I found out my EBT balance was stolen.”  She said she last used her EBT card at Walmart in Parkway Plaza, but had saved most of her EBT money to buy items for Christmas—only to lose $837.   “They left me 57 cents.”  She indicated that she reported the crime to San Diego Police, who advised her that she was a victim of skimming.  She filed a dispute with San Diego Health and Human Services, but her request for reimbursement was denied. She has filed an appeal but says that even if she wins, she won’t get the money until after Christmas.  “This is the worst month,” she lamented.

LMPD fights back

“During this holiday season, our Detectives have been conducting business inspections at convenience stores, gas stations, and banks throughout La Mesa,” says Lt. Lynch, adding that detectives are also checking devices at free-standing ATMs inside businesses such as grocery stores. 

“These inspections will continue through the holidays,” Lt. Lynch assures. “During their inspections the Detectives are checking all point-of-sale devices, to include card readers at gas pumps, ATMs, and check-out registers, for any skimming devices. Detectives are providing training to employees at each business and sharing an informational pamphlet to educate employees on what to look for and to encourage them to conduct routine inspections of all card readers.”

How to avoid becoming a victim

“The biggest thing is to check the device before you put your card in,” Lt. Lynch advises.  On gas pumps, check to see if security seals or security tape have been broken. On any credit card or ATM slot, look to see if a device sticks out, is off center, loose/wiggly,  or if a device is of a different material than the original machine.

Also check for pinhole cameras – tiny holes above or near the credit card or ATM terminal. These may look like a pinhole or plug – with a hidden camera to steal your pin number and give thieves full access to loot your account.  Also check for keypads to be sure there’s no overlaying device or if keys seem harder to press than usual.

Skimmers work on Bluetooth signal and can even steal info off credit cards that are tapped, not only off the magnetic strips that slide into devices.  “There are skimmer scanner smart phone devices” tat can protect against many such ID theft efforts, Lt. Lynch advises, but she cautions that they don’t catch all of the means that savvy thieves use to skim your personal data.

Tips for businesses

Check all credit card or ATM devices daily using the tips on the informational pamphlet. If a skimmer is found, this gives law enforcement a narrow time window that makes it easier to obtain security footage and to catch the thieves.

What to do if you find a skimmer

Do not remove or touch the skimmer, which could destroy DNA or fingerprints. Businesses should secure the area to prevent anyone from using the compromised device, and immediately call law enforcement.

Members of the public should alert law enforcement immediately. In La Mesa, you can call LMPD at 619-667-1400.  In other jurisdictions, call the San Diego County Sheriff or your city’s local police department. 

Calling police can prevent others from being victimized.  “We recovered a device last month,” last Lt. Lynch, who provided photos published in this story.

She concludes, “If you see something, say something.”

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