Skimmed clean

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 November, 2004, 12:00am

Withdrawing money from cash machines is a reflex action. An everyday process prompting little thought save for how much to extract. But this time, fixed obtrusively over a petrol garage ATM slot in London, lay a cheap plastic device in a slightly different grey hue.

It was more cheap Star Wars toy than the sleek plastic of the ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall cash machine. With a quick nudge, it fell off.

Bemused, I walked to the garage cashier to admit I'd broken his machine only to be stopped by a menacing bloke claiming it was his. 'I'm waiting for the police, mate. Someone has skimmed my card with this device.' He then got into his car and drove off. I should have known. Those who sport Burberry baseball caps and clutch cheap Star Wars devices usually hail from the Dark Side.

'You are lucky,' said Dominic Needham, a friend. 'I lost #1,200 ($17,300) last week. They cloned the card Friday night, withdrew #300 Saturday, first thing Sunday and then Monday morning. I didn't have a penny left to get to work.'

Such 'skimming' is officially rife in London. Up 129 per cent in a year, according to recent figures, with #40m now swiped annually by the capital's gangs armed with an array of techniques and gadgets and plenty of bravado. Techniques include the 'shoulder surf', in which crooks loiter behind an ATM as you tap in your pin, recording the details while writing 'a text'. You are then mugged or pick-pocketed, and your account later emptied.

There's the 'Lebanese Loop', a clip hooked inside the slot which traps your card. A man then tricks you into re-entering your pin while he memorises it. After suggesting you go inside to report it, he then makes off with your card.

Then there's the 'skimmer', a dummy slot placed over the ATM that reads card details on the magnetic strip. A small camera above the machine spies your pin and a fake card is cloned. About 40 cards' details can be gleaned an hour this way, with the average amount skimmed from each card put at #1,800 by the police. No wonder Mr Burberry was anxious for it back.

Some crooks 'door skim', attaching a 'reader' over a bank's nighttime security door. A 'helpful' gang member then directs you to the real entry device and shoulder surfs at the ATM. Different methods, same result: an empty bank account.

For years banks denied skimming was even possible. Now they admit the scams so rife that they part-fund a police taskforce. Unlike my friend Dominic, perhaps the Force was with me that night at the ATM. As for the crook? Well, the real force may soon be with him soon - he had parked his car right in front of the garage's CCTV camera.