UK Markets open in 4 hrs 51 mins

How credit card cloning works

Felicity Hannah

The amount lost to card fraud last year was a substantial £341 million. That’s £341 million stolen by fraudsters, when the rest of us have to work for a living.

Last week, I saw how this kind of fraud works first hand. My husband received a text from his bank asking if he really was buying £950-worth of stuff in Sports Direct.

Since he was at work (and isn’t exactly a fan of sports fashion), it was fairly obviously not him. But what confused us was that his card hadn’t been stolen; it was still in his wallet.

And we take card security very seriously. When paying in shops or restaurants, he knows not to let the credit card out of his sight and he certainly hadn’t used any disreputable website – the only recent purchases had been booking a holiday on a travel comparison site and paying for a book on Amazon.

So how did these fraudsters do it?

[Related feature: How cold callers get your number]

Card cloning 101

It seems most likely that my husband was the victim of a card–cloning scam, probably after using a ticket machine that had been tampered with. This technique is sometimes known as ‘skimming’ and it allows the criminal to copy the card’s electronic data so they can make an exact replica of your card.

Most commonly these gadgets are fitted to cash machines but sometimes criminals working in retail outlets may have them concealed.

The skimming device is fitted over the card slot on the machine and copies the details from the magnetic strip as you enter it.

Usually the criminal will attempt to get the cardholder’s PIN at the same time, sometimes by simply looking, but sometimes using a small camera built into the false front.

You can see a video of this kind of scam in action on the LINK website.

Be aware that most ATMs do have a small camera fitted that points behind the person using the machine. These help identify fraudsters and criminals who attack people using the machine.

Take the time to familiarise yourself with an ATM and you’ll be better prepared to notice when one looks wrong.

Staying safe

It can be really hard to spot that a cash or ticket machine has been tampered with – these are professional thieves, so the false fronts are unlikely to be obvious. One giveaway is that the area containing the card slot seems to have been moved forwards; this is to conceal the skimming machine inside.

There are other ways to keep as safe as possible. One is to shield the keypad with your hand when entering your PIN, regardless of whether or not someone is behind you.

Don’t be embarrassed about asking other people in the queue to stand further back if they are crowding you, and never reveal your PIN even to someone claiming to be from the bank or police.

If the machine swallows your card then call the bank while you’re still in front of the machine, if you can. Be cautious of anyone offering to help you if your card has got stuck.

Of course, the main thing to do is check your account statements regularly. My husband’s fraudsters were caught when they tried to make a massive purchase. However, before they were caught they had spent over £1,000 through smaller transactions over the preceding week.

Because the amounts were small, the bank hadn’t flagged them as suspicious. That means that if my other half had checked his statement more regularly, he might have noticed the fraud sooner.

If you’re even slightly worried about the security of your account, or think your card may have been put at risk then contact your provider as soon as possible. They can freeze your account and send a new card out that day.

Smooth transaction

Fortunately, innocent victims aren’t left in the lurch when this kind of fraud takes place.

My husband’s bank immediately froze the card and opened a separate account. He helped them identify the real debts, which were moved over, so there was no risk that his monthly payment would be unexpectedly high.

But there’s no denying that it was an unnecessary faff. There was time spent on the phone to the bank, time spent combing through the statements and the hassle of a new credit card number.

So it’s important to keep yourself as safe as possible. Melanie Johnson, chair of the UK Cards Association, said: “This is the third year card fraud losses have fallen - clear proof that our endeavours to fight fraud are packing a punch.

“Customers have also played their part in driving down losses by taking heed of advice about looking after their personal and financial details. Fortunately, they can always be confident that if they are the innocent victim of fraud, they have excellent fraud protection that they don’t get if they use cash.”

Phishing by phone

When there’s a crackdown on credit card fraud, hardened thieves simply try harder. In fact, many are reverting to old fashioned con-artistry, as the security of card technology improves.

DCI Paul Barnard who heads up the industry-sponsored police squad, the Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit, explained: “As technological advances have made our payments more secure, we’ve seen a spike in more simplistic crimes.

“Many scams involve customers being conned into handing over their cards and PINs, or their telephone banking security details by someone calling, pretending to be their bank or police.

“Our appeal to the public is to be wary of any unsolicited phone calls or emails – never hand over your card and PIN or bank security details in full as neither your bank nor the police will ever ask you for these.”

[Related feature: The return of a classic scam]

More from
The average Brit has just £98 spare at the end of the month
The smartphone app scam
Get on top of your money complications