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Fraud Ring Targets BofA Accounts

Federal agents are quietly investigating what is thought to be the largest automated teller fraud ring yet uncovered in Southern California, one responsible for stealing at least $100,000 from Bank of America customers’ accounts.

The Secret Service says the thieves often work from vans parked outside Bank of America branches, mostly in the San Fernando Valley. They secretly videotape ATM transactions and collect discarded receipts to get the information needed for counterfeit cards.

With the phony cards, they have siphoned money from customers’ accounts at teller machines as far away as Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, investigators said. The scheme has been operating for at least a year.

Authorities said Bank of America apparently became a target because its machines print the entire card number on receipts.

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The card number, encoded on the magnetic strip on the back of the ATM card, is one of two numbers needed to tap an account.

Wells Fargo, Great Western and other banks stopped printing the entire card number on ATM receipts as a security measure in mid-1992.

Bank of America has announced that, beginning later this month, its ATM receipts will no longer show the entire card number. Though the bank denies it, Secret Service agent Greg James said the action is a direct result of the probe and consultations with investigators.

Bank of America spokesman Harvey Radin said the timing is coincidental. He said the bank had been planning to delete a portion of the card number “for years.”

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Investigators and banking industry representatives said ATM fraud is on the rise, although it is not as common as crimes involving counterfeit credit cards. Most ATM accounts have withdrawal limits, typically $200 to $500 a day, thereby restricting the amount of money a crook can take at one time.

Also, a thief must obtain a second number, the customer’s personal identification number, or PIN, to use a counterfeit ATM card.

In the scheme under investigation, authorities said the thieves have used high-powered cameras hidden in vans, hotel rooms and rented offices to tape customers as they entered their PINs. Then they pair card numbers with PINs by noting when the transaction took place and matching the time of day printed on the discarded ATM receipt to the hour recorded on the videotape.

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In addition to the San Fernando Valley, the ring has operated near Palm Springs, authorities said.

James, the Secret Service agent, would give no details about the group under investigation because no arrests have been made. Neither the number of bank branches involved nor how many customers are believed to have been victims could be learned.

BofA spokesman Radin said customers who complain about fraud and prove to be legitimate victims are “made whole” by the bank. He said BofA has not alerted customers because to do so “would cause undue concern.”

Security tip: You can protect yourself from the risk of ATM fraud by taking your transaction receipts with you. Should you become a victim, you are liable only for the first $50 if you report the theft from your account within 48 hours, said Tom Celebrezze, spokesman for the California Bankers Assn.

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Toy Alert: The state Department of Consumer Affairs is asking retailers to stop selling 60 toys because they have small parts that might easily break off and could cause a small child to choke.

The department said most of the toys are imported from China or Taiwan, and most cost less than $5. Among them are My Own Band, a $4 battery-operated boom box, and Baby Runner Duck and Baby Runner Turtle, motorized toys priced at 99 cents each. The names of the manufacturers or importers were not available.

To find out if you may have purchased one of the potentially hazardous toys, call the Department of Consumer Affairs at (916) 574-2040 or the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s hot line at (800) 638-2772.

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Odds and Ends: Customers of Fields Jewelers are hoping for a hot New Year’s Eve. The Encino store will give refunds for purchases made between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve if the temperature rises above 85 degrees on Dec. 31. . . . KCET, the public television station in Los Angeles, said it has reviewed its policies and decided to continue offering toys as fund-raising premiums.

Parents had objected to other PBS stations using Barney, the purple dinosaur popular with small children, to entice donations during children’s programming. KCET never offered Barney toys but is currently offering Elmo stuffed dolls in return for $60 pledges.


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