With new chips on the way, cloned credit cards remain rampant in the Lowcountry

Credit cards with computer chips make it more difficult for thieves to steal information.

Just weeks before retailers are supposed to start using credit card readers that make it harder to steal information, electronic thievery remains rampant in the Lowcountry.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office is handling at least 13 cases involving cloned credit cards, Maj. Eric Watson said.

Charleston police see so many cloned cards that a detective works the cases full time.

“I see it every day,” Detective Gil Jackson said.

A cloned card is a copy of a legitimate ATM or credit card, allowing thieves to use the money in your account or credit line without your permission. The majority of cloned cards are the result of skimmers placed on ATMs or gas pumps, according to investigators and industry analysts. A computer chip records the electronic information of a transaction so a thief can use it to make a new card, such as burning a CD from mp3 files.

A skimmer was found Aug. 27 at a Bank of America ATM on Ashley Crossing Drive. An ATM repairman discovered it after the Diebold machine quit working, according to the incident report. A bank spokeswoman had no estimate of how many cards were compromised but stressed that customers would be reimbursed for any losses. The skimmer was only on the machine for about 30 minutes before the machine quit working, probably because of its anti-skimming technology, Jackson said.

Police released surveillance photos of a suspect, recorded at 3:20 p.m. as he went through a drive-through lane. He’s white with dark hair, wearing dark sunglasses and driving what looks like a dark-colored Lexus sedan. The camera didn’t record the car’s license plate, Jackson said.

Skimmers come in multiple varieties, some more sophisticated than others. In this case, the thief replaced the ATM’s plastic cover with a look-alike with a computer chip. A small camera recorded PINs.

Low-tech skimmers like this one can be thwarted by simply pulling on the cover before you use an ATM, since the skimmer is meant to be easily removed later by the thief.

“Just reach out and pull it,” Jackson said. “If it comes off, that’s what we detectives call a clue.”

It’s rare that police find a skimmer still attached to a machine. Jackson said it’s the first one he’s found in the three years he’s been focusing on card fraud. None of the other local law enforcement agencies could remember finding one recently. The last mention in the newspaper archives was of three skimmers found in 2009 at ATMs in West Ashley.

But the widespread use of cloned cards leads investigators to believe skimmers are not uncommon in the Lowcountry.

“Most of these cards were skimmed in some kind of way without the victims being aware of it,” Watson said.

One man used two different cloned cards recently to run up more than $1,000 worth of purchases at stores in Mount Pleasant and on James Island, according to incident reports. Both cards were from South State Bank. The owners told deputies the cards never left their possession.

The new cards with computer chips are known as EMV cards, which stands for Europay, MasterCard and Visa. Experts hope they will at least slow down digital thievery. About half of credit cards have the chips now, according to an AP-GFK poll in July. The percentage is expected to rise to about 75 percent by the end of the year.

The chip generates a new code with each transaction, so a thief can’t use the information to make a new card. The card is inserted lengthwise into a compatible machine, chip end first, and left there until the transaction is completed.

Banks are pressuring retailers to install new card readers by Oct. 1, or the retailers instead of the banks will be liable for any fraud that results from the old technology.

The deadline for ATMs is October 2016 for MasterCard and October 2017 for VISA.

The new cards and readers will make skimming harder and more expensive, but eliminating it completely remains a challenge.

“Most cards, whether they’re EMV or not, still have the traditional magnetic stripe on the back,” ATM maker Diebold said in an article posted on its website in July. “And with that magnetic stripe comes the risk of skimming attacks. In Europe, where cards have been completely migrated to EMV, skimming continues to be an issue.”

Diebold proposes ways to minimize the risk, but an industry standard has not been agreed upon, according to Doug Johnson, senior vice president of payments and cybersecurity policy for the American Bankers Association.

“What we’re trying to do is change the economics, to the extent that we can make it more difficult and costly for them to do one type of crime,” he said in a phone interview from Washington. “It remains to be seen what kinds of technologies are adopted over the course of the next couple years. The technology is moving pretty quickly.”

Johnson said there was no official estimate on how widespread skimming is. There are plenty of other ways for thieves to get credit card information besides skimming, including hacking data bases and intercepting information online.

In the AP-GFK poll, only 19 percent said they were extremely or very confident the new cards would prevent fraud. A little more than half said they were moderately confident.

Meanwhile, customers are advised to check ATMs and gas pump readers before using them and to make sure nobody is watching when they type in PINs.

Reach Dave Munday at (843) 937-5553.