Crime

Police say he used skimmed data to make 271 fraudulent transactions on WECU accounts

How to spot a skimmer at a gas pump or ATM

Eric Vitale, fraud investigation specialist with the San Luis Obispo, Calif., Police Department, demonstrates how to spot a card skimmer on an ATM, gas pump or other card reader. He also offers advice for keeping your PIN and card information safe
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Eric Vitale, fraud investigation specialist with the San Luis Obispo, Calif., Police Department, demonstrates how to spot a card skimmer on an ATM, gas pump or other card reader. He also offers advice for keeping your PIN and card information safe

A Portland, Ore., man is suspected of making 271 fraudulent transactions using Whatcom Educational Credit Union account information investigators believe was compromised last July at a gas station in Deming.

The Bellingham Police Department booked Erik Luis Lores-Acosta, 21, into Whatcom County Jail, and according to court records he has been charged with two counts of first-degree identity theft, two counts of second-degree identity theft and one count of first-degree theft.

According to the probable cause statement filed in Whatcom County Superior Court Feb. 22, Lores-Acosta’s fraudulent transactions were made on four WECU accounts and totaled $8,712.98. The court document also said that all four account holders are believed to have had their account information compromised after making purchases last July at the Nooksack Market in Deming.

Investigators were first notified by WECU of the potentially fraudulent activity on Sept. 6 after the credit union received multiple reports of irregular activity to WECU accounts over the Labor Day weekend, court records state. Detectives were given four bank card numbers linked to accounts that appeared to be compromised, along with five dates, times and locations where fraudulent activity was believed to have taken place.

Detectives contacted the Winco Foods in Portland, where fraudulent activity had occurred on Sept. 5, court records said. Winco provided them with a still image and video surveillance of a man in his 20s with a thin build, a Mohawk haircut and ponytail, later identified as Lores-Acosta, walking directly to an ATM in the front of the store and remaining there for more than 15 minutes. Transaction data from the ATM machine reportedly showed there were 17 transactions made during the time Lores-Acosta was at the machine.

Investigators also obtained surveillance footage of a man matching the description of Lores-Acosta conducting multiple transactions a day later at an ATM machine in front of a Walgreens in Portland, court documents state. Lores-Acosta also reportedly was captured on video on Sept. 26 making a fraudulent transaction on an ATM at a Portland-area 7-11 store.

Police matched the surveillance footage to photos on Lores-Acosta’s Facebook page, according to court documents, before matching them to images taken by the Portland Police Department.

All four victims live in Whatcom County, according to the court documents, and their accounts each had between 12 and 116 fraudulent transactions between Aug. 26 and Sept. 27. Total fraudulent activity made against each account ranged between $493 and $4,808.75.

Tips to avoid card skimming

According to an article on Forbes.com, even cards with an EMV-chip can be victimized when you swipe the magnetic stripe, though many ATM machines in the U.S. now read the chip, making skimming less rampant. The article offered these tips for reducing the chances your card gets skimmed:

Pull on the card reader first: Scammers create devices designed to look like the actual machine. Before inserting your card, look for anything that seems out of the ordinary, such as tape, glue marks or machine scratches, and pull on the card reader to see if it seems loose. A valid card reader should be well secured and not look like it has had any repairs made.

Examine the keypad: Scammers sometimes place a duplicate keyboard over the original in an attempt to get your PIN information. If you are typing on the keypad, and it feels like the keys are spongy or about to fall off, there’s a chance a scammer is recording your keystrokes via a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signal. If you doubt the integrity of the keyboard, stop using it immediately. You also can use your phone to check for Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signals in the area.

Look for cracks in the receipt slot: Card thieves also have been known for placing a scanner in a receipt slot of ATMs. The machine may still function as normal, but the scanner is recording every detail of your transaction. If the ATM is cracked or looks like it’s been tampered with, there’s a chance it has.

Look for things that are out of place: Thieves don’t need to break into the machine to steal your PIN number, and wireless cameras are so small, they can be hidden almost anywhere near a machine. Look above the screen and to the side of the screen or touch pad for any unusual boxes that could be in view of the keypad. Small holes near or on the machine also could be a place were cameras are hidden.

Watch for strangers: Although technology has made this scam virtually obsolete, an old throwback could be using somebody standing nearby to take and record your information. Make sure you have enough privacy to conduct your business.

High-traffic machines are best: Scams are more likely to take place at machines that see little traffic or aren’t under constant supervision. Chose your transaction locations carefully.

An nbclosangeles.com story offered these additional tips to avoid skimmers at gas stations:

Avoid pumps at the end: They’re often too far away from the attendant to have a clear view of the pump.

Don’t use your debit card: If a skimmer gets your PIN number, your bank account could be exposed.

Look around: Assume a pump or card reader that looks like it has been tampered with probably has. Move on to another pump or station.

Always print a receipt: You need one to file a claim with the gas station’s insurance company in case you pump bad fuel or if your card information gets skimmed. If you notice suspicious charges on your account, contact your financial institution immediately.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.
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