Debit-card thefts on the rise, Vail Valley banks say | VailDaily.com

Debit-card thefts on the rise, Vail Valley banks say

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – The card reader must be on the blink.

That’s what I thought when I tried to buy fuel at a Gypsum gas station recently when the pay-at-the-pump device wouldn’t read my debit card. I tried again at another station in town. Still, nothing – and on payday, to boot. So I went to the nearby Alpine Bank branch and learned my card had been frozen by the bank’s fraud department.

Someone, somewhere, had gotten hold of my card numbers. When whoever it was tried to buy $2,500 worth of stuff at a store in New Jersey, the fraud-watchers flew the red flags and killed my card.

Other than having to re-learn how to write a check, it wasn’t a particularly difficult experience, except for the dread of someone possibly having access my account as well as my card (which wasn’t the case). But my own experience is becoming more and more common.

“We have a couple of people a week in this office who have had the same thing happen,” Alpine Bank Eagle Branch President Rachel Overlease-Gerlach said.

The good news is, most people don’t lose their own money when their cards are compromised. But the banks do take those losses, and that’s not good, either.

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That’s why virtually every bank these days has either a fraud department, and those offices are busy places.

Watching the numbers fly

Those departments – whether they’re in-house, as is the case at Alpine Bank and FirstBank, or contracted, as American National Bank does – share similar jobs. Since thieves can put “skimmer” devices – gadgets, sometimes as small as a postage stamp, that can read the magnetic strip information from a card, then transmit it to a thief nearby – fraud departments mostly have to react to what the bad guys are doing.

That takes sophisticated software that tracks a card user’s buying habits, as well as where he or she uses the card.

If a card is used outside those standards, warning flags start to fly. One of the quickest ways to raise those flags is transactions in different places at roughly the same time. If hubby is on a business trip to Texas and his wife and kids are still home in Eagle, they could conceivably buy gas or food at roughly the same time. If that happens, someone in the family will probably get a call from the fraud department.

“Two people can be in different places and using their cards, but if we get a gas purchase in Denver and the same card is used an hour later in Florida, we’ll shut down the card until we can confirm what’s happened,” American National Bank Senior Vice President Teller Nancy Harvey said.

That’s happening more often these days, as skimmers become more common and it keeps getting easier to transmit the numbers to card counterfeiters.

“It’s just a never-ending battle,” said Nick Brooks, a banking officer at FirstBank in Avon.

Protect yourself

The bad guys are almost everywhere, and they’re always trying to stay ahead of the fraud-trackers. But debit cards continue to get more use. A story at ConsumerReports.com cites a Nelson Report survey that debit card spending may account for more than two-thirds of all transactions in this country by 2013. While we’re using those cards, ABC News reports that the Secret Service estimates debit card losses top $1 billion a year.

So how can we protect ourselves?

“Any time your card is out of your hands you’re vulnerable,” Harvey said.

People at restaurants can scan and transmit your card numbers on their way to and from your table, Overlease-Gerlach said, adding she knows some customers who actually get up and follow a waiter or waitress to the card readers in restaurants.

But the sad fact is that most of us will never know when or how our digits were pinched.

So what happens if you’re in Glacier National Park and your debit card gets shut down?

Alpine Bank electronic banking specialist David Miller recommends carrying more than one kind of card.

“Having a backup plan is essential,” Miller said. He recommends that people carry a conventional credit card in addition to a debit card. The two cards work differently, so one will generally work if the other doesn’t. And carrying at least some cash on the road is a good idea.

When Miller’s teenage daughter went to Europe recently, her parents sent her off with a regular debit card, some cash in various currencies and a gift card that works as a credit card.

Closer to home, virtually all the bank employees interviewed for this story recommended frequent use of on-line banking, so people can track their account activity.

“It’s almost addictive,” Alpine Bank employee Jolene Marsh said. “I use it all the time.”

The key, though, is that even if we’re all a lot more careful than we are now, there’s no guarantee someone won’t get our card numbers. If that happens, your bank’s fraud department becomes a good friend. And you’ll have to re-learn how to write a check.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.