Criminal gangs target holidaymakers' cards

HOLIDAYMAKERS are being warned to be on the lookout for card thieves, who can strike when you least expect and turn a happy vacation into a nightmare.

Plastic offences have become the crime of choice for many international organised gangs. But increased security, such as the introduction of Chip and Pin (personal identification number), has closed down the options for easy pickings.

So crooks are turning up the heat. Teams of small-time villains scout bars, clubs, shops and restaurants, and watch as holidaymakers tap in their Pin as they buy something, pay for a round of drinks or settle a bill. Then they follow them and wait for an opportune moment to move in and steal the card.

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One victim said: "I was out with a few girlfriends, and used my card to buy a round of drinks. Later we went to another bar with a dance floor, and when I left it, I saw the clutch on my bag was open. I checked everything inside and realised my cards had been stolen."

She went outside immediately and reported the theft to both her card issuers and the police. Even so, the thieves had already managed to hit three cash machines in the near vicinity and escaped with about 400 from her bank account.

This kind of crime is highly organised, and teams are waiting by to extract as much money as they can, because they know they have a window of between about half an hour and two hours before the theft is spotted and the cards stopped.

Had this victim not acted so quickly, thousands of pounds could have been removed from her account or spent on credit cards.

"But what really frightened me was that the police said the gang had probably been following us all evening as we went from bar to bar," she added.

So police have issued a warning reminding travellers they can be at their most vulnerable when out for the day or on holiday.

Britain's top card fraud detective, Detective Chief Inspector Paul Barnard said: "Don't be alarmed, but be alert. People out in crowds, enjoying themselves, is the best possible combination as far as the criminals are concerned."

Police have worked hard with the banks to successfully cut card crime through a variety of security improvements, saving the industry 368 million over the last nine years.

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Card counterfeiting and cloning stopped being an easy route to riches after the introduction of Chip and Pin five years ago. More recently, security updates such as MasterCard's "SecureCode" and "Verified by Visa" have blocked many attempts at fraudulent shopping on the internet.

Banks aggressively monitor transaction patterns, and call cardholders to verify any unusually large, suspicious or exceptional payments.

But one area stubbornly resistant to these crackdowns, despite the introduction of Chip and Pin, is personal theft. Whereas counterfeit, skimmed or cloned card crime fell last year by an astonishing 41 per cent from 81m to 47m, fraud relating to stolen or lost cards eased only slightly, from 47m to 44m.

DCI Barnard, head of the Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit, said: "Thieves are active anywhere friends are gathering and relaxing together, such as cafes, bars or pubs. But people are particularly vulnerable on holiday. You only have to look around on a nice day to see how easy it is. People are sitting outside, their wallets are in their jackets, hung over the backs of chairs, along with handbags."

Barnard's advice is to keep your cards on your body at all times, and not leave them in your jacket or bag. Always shield your Pin when paying bills. Put all your card issuers' telephone numbers in your phone, so you can report theft immediately.

Finally, always check your cards are where they should be when you return after an evening out.

If you are targeted, you should be protected unless the bank can prove you were negligent. The Payment Services Regulations require money stolen using a debit card to be refunded immediately.

Where a credit card is stolen, customers can be charged up to 50 towards any transactions made up to the moment the theft is reported. In practice banks often waive this fee.

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A recent survey by the Lending Standards Board revealed that 99 per cent (115,571 of 116,637) fraudulent credit card transactions were automatically refunded. The remaining 1 per cent were rejected because customers had written down their Pin and kept it with the card.

Some banks refunded immediately, but others took up to 48 hours. In some cases, delays were longer while banks waited for customer statements to be returned. Interest accrued in this period must also be refunded.

If you are a victim of crime, keep an eye on your credit reference file to make sure no-one is using your personal information to fraudulently apply for credit.

Free online copies are available from Experian at, Equifax at and Call Credit at

If you have a wallet full of plastic, or go abroad regularly, consider joining a card protection scheme such as Sentinel where you can register all your cards. If they are stolen, you make one phone call and Sentinel cancels them all on your behalf.

The service costs around 40 for one year or 90 for three, and also covers cash, keys and mobile phones. However, these items may already be protected on your household insurance policy.

Michelle Whiteman, a spokeswoman for the Payments Council, said: "Customers should rest assured they will be protected against loss should their cards be stolen. But some people, particularly if they travel a lot, prefer the convenience of knowing that all their cards can be cancelled with just one call."

Five card tricks

1. Shoulder surfing: Card thieves look over your shoulder to spy on your Pin. At a later opportunity they steal your card and withdraw as much cash or make as many purchases as possible before the theft is reported. Always shield your Pin when tapping it in on the keypad.

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2. Card cloning: Never let your card out of your sight, or it could be cloned and the copy shipped abroad or used to make internet purchases. Though many internet sites now require extra security information, some do not.

3. Card-trapping devices: If something about a cash dispenser doesn't look right, never use it. Gangs can insert devices into a cash machine's card slot. Someone watches as you insert your Pin number, but you won't get any money or your card back. Later, the gang retrieves your card, uses your Pin and empties your account.

4. Skimming: A skimmer is attached to the cash machine, which records the electronic details from the magnetic stripe. A miniature camera over the Pin pad captures the number. A fake magnetic stripe card is then produced and used with the genuine Pin.

5. Phishing and cold calling: Never give out information to cold callers or via e-mail. Phishing attacks, e-mails purporting to come from your bank asking for financial information, have increased nearly five-fold over the past four years. Telephone research is also being used as a cover to extract information about your financial arrangements. Never give any confidential information over the telephone or internet.