BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Dumpster diving, a dishonest clerk imprinting a credit card or a scam to somehow get an account number are all ways thieves are getting their hands on credit card numbers.
It's something that happens all the time and many people don't even realize they're the victim. Cathy Louis is a prime example.
"I received a phone call from the Visa people, and they asked me if I was using my card, and that if I just bought something from Best Buy? I said, 'No, I hadn't'," said Louis.
One red flag for her credit card company was that Best Buy was 1,300 miles away in Minnesota!
"Have you ever been to Minnesota?" asked Chawla.
"I have never been to Minnesota in my life," said Louis. "How does someone get my name, my card number?"
Unfortunately, it's not difficult. Thieves sell the numbers to one another often using underground websites.
They quickly rack up on big purchases, usually high-end electronics, costing retailers millions of dollars each year.
In turn, retailers have to jack up their prices to make up for the losses.
"They're basically trying to get things for free. It's no different than stealing and walking out with it, but more and more today, we're seeing a lot of it," said Secret Service Agent Luis Velez with the Baton Rouge office.
There are three main ways thieves doctor cards.
One is taking a legitimate credit card and replacing the information on the black magnetic strip with information from a stolen credit card. That's known as re-encoding. When a merchant swipes the now-bogus card, the information on the register does not match the name and account number on the front of the card. It looks like someone's else's card, but it's your account getting charged.
To make it look legitimate, they'll even forge what looks to be a real out-of-state ID card knowing most people do not know the look of every ID from every state.
"So when they go to a retailer, they'll present what appears to be a legitimate out-of-state license and what appears to be a legitimate debit/credit card to match it," said Velez.
Then there's making your own credit cards. They are blank cards thieves use to imprint a number and name on. It's called embossing.
The last popular method is counterfeit gift cards. The retailer thinks the customer is using a legitimate voucher, $20, $50, $100 or perhaps even more. When in actuality, the person is using someone else's stolen credit card number.
"They re-emboss these, re-encode these with the stolen numbers in the back, and it makes it easier because they don't have to present a driver's license because there's no name on them," said Velez.
Even though it's a scam costing retailers and all of us millions of dollars, it's one that Velez said is very difficult to track because of the nature of business.
"You can go to New Orleans, do your activity in New Orleans. Then put it in the back of your trunk, move on to Baton Rouge and just continue it. You can re-encode the credit cards in the back of your car somewhere in Baton Rouge, and not use the same cards you used in New Orleans," said Velez.
The Secret Service said there are several faces allegedly behind it - people who travel across the country to counterfeit. With the I-10, I-12 and I-55 corridors all coming together near Baton Rouge, it's a criminal hot spot.
While law enforcement is seeing some success, they say the problem is growing and not just hurting consumers and businesses.
"We lost city tax. We lost parish taxes and state taxes so that affects us all when someone is stealing tax money that belongs to Louisiana," said Velez.
Below are some tips to keep you from falling victim.
- Sign your cards as soon as they arrive.
- Carry your cards separately from your wallet, in a zippered compartment, a business card holder, or another small pouch.
- Keep a record of your account numbers, their expiration dates, and the phone number and address of each company in a secure place.
- Keep an eye on your card during the transaction, and get it back as quickly as possible.
- Void incorrect receipts.
- Destroy carbons.
- Save receipts to compare with billing statements.
- Open bills promptly and reconcile accounts monthly, just as you would your checking account.
- Report any questionable charges promptly and in writing to the card issuer.
- Notify card companies in advance of a change in address.
- Lend your cards to anyone.
- Leave cards or receipts lying around.
- Sign a blank receipt. When you sign a receipt, draw a line through any blank spaces above the total.
- Write your account number on a postcard or the outside of an envelope.
- Give out your account number over the phone unless you're making the call to a company you know is reputable. If you have questions about a company, check it out with your local consumer protection office or Better Business Bureau.
To file a complaint or get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).