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My Money is in Russia

November 15, 2005

I got the call from my wife just as I ended 21 hours of teaching at a week-long retreat. She had been listening to the messages on our home phone as she took the Veteran’s Day break from her school nurse job. The message was from the Fraud Division of Wells-Fargo Bank. They wanted to know if we had made certain withdrawals on our bank account during the last week. I was the only one using that account (via my ATM card) and while I had been at the conference, I hadn’t used it. As I went online to check the charges, the horror revealed itself: They had removed over $2,500 from my checking account!

We have pieced together the details and when all the dust settled, I found out that someone in Russia is taking money out of my account at approximately a $300 per day habit. The bank and I tried to figure out what happened and the most likely scenario is that I was a victim of fraud at the Salt Lake City airport. The method they used for the fraud is called “skimming”. You can read more about it here.  Here is what the crooks did. They place a false front on the ATM machine. When I tried to use it, I slid my card through the card reader and it said it could read my card but there was a malfunction. A camera placed near the machine spots me typing in my PIN identification code. Then, when I leave, the information is transferred to a blank card and is sold on the black market in Europe (in my case, Russia). With the PIN, they can access it anywhere in Europe until the card is cancelled.

The Sacramento Bee has run several stories this week on the many types of ATM card fraud. One popular scam is operated by unscrupulous employees of legitimate businesses. While you are not looking, they read your card through a second card reader under the counter. That card reader can then be attached later to a computer and they add your PIN number to it.

I was given three great hints as to how you can foil these efforts:

  1. Always remove cash from Bank ATM machines only.
  2. Feel the slot to make sure there is nothing plastic inside of it.
  3. Always put your hand over the PIN pad to make sure no person or camera can see you inputting your code.


Wells Fargo has been very helpful at getting my money back. They also caught the fraud in the first place, assuming I guess that I couldn’t be taking money out in Salt Lake and Moscow within two hours of each other. Nice catch for a bank.

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