‘Tis the season for ID theft

‘Tis the season for ID theft

City men who recently hacked into bank computer networks across the United States to steal credit card numbers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to identity theft in Edmonton, say police.

In fact, during the busiest shopping season of the year, they’re warning consumers to avoid using credit and debit when possible and keep their personal information tightly guarded.

For every pair police catch, they figure there are dozens of criminals out there in the City of Champions, where debit and credit fraud is rapidly becoming popular among all kinds of criminal.

“It’s so easy for them,” said Det. Bob Gauthier of the Edmonton Police Service. “That’s just one of the many scams out there these days. It’s just rampant.”

The pair in question targeted small banks in smaller communities, said Gauthier, until they found those with poor network protection.

They then lifted thousands of credit cards and used them to imprint generic “preloaded” gift cards in Edmonton.

Like many of those involved in identity theft, both were fuelling drug habits, said Gauthier, and hit more than a half-dozen banks.

“The U.S. Secret Service is helping us with it,” he said. “We have to go through them and they’re having some difficulties with the investigation.”

Police here have laid some charges but expect more to come, said Gauthier.

But their biggest opponent to preventing ID theft is, in one sense, the public itself.

People don’t realize that skimming has become so sophisticated it now uses things like wi-fi and bluetooth wireless connections to transmit the stolen information instantly.

The public shops with impunity online and never carries cash anymore.

The bad guys count on that.

“A guy can set up a fake pinpad, skim all your information and relay it remotely via bluetooth, so that literally a few minutes later, it’s being imprinted on a credit card in Montreal,” he said.

“It’s getting so sophisticated, it’s ridiculous.”

For the most part, the days of hiding a camera over the counter in a gas station to catch someone’s pin being dialed into a jimmied swiper are pretty much gone, said Gauthier, although police still run into such cases from time to time.

The big problems arise now from people hacking websites or setting up fake PIN pads.

Wi-fi presents a huge problem, say police, because public access points can be easily “ghosted” — taken over by a crook who uses a program to make it look like his laptop is the access hub, allowing him to steal information from anyone trying to hook up to the network.

“They’re pretty enterprising, some of the stuff they come up with,” said Gauthier.

It’s so rampant that the Ontario Provincial Police agency Phonebusters had at least $5 billion worth of identity fraud reported to it in 2006 alone — and much of it is never reported.

Despite that, said Gauthier, people feel invulnerable until it happens to them, which might be why a decade of warnings about the expansion of economic crimes have met with little government or public response.

“That’s why nobody cares when meth heads do this stuff on the Internet,” said Gauthier.

“Because they don’t see it. There’s some reporting of it, obviously, but there’s generally apathy to the problem from customers right up until they become complainants,” he said.

Police have been “screaming for extra manpower” to address the issue for years and are frustrated that society has yet to realize how much the tide has turned, from old-school one-on-one crime to sophisticated, technologically driven ripoffs.

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