Reports of credit card fraud soar in Central Montana

By: 
DEB HILL
News-Argus Managing Editor

A person uses a debit card for a purchase at Albertsons Thursday evening. Many local residents reported theft of debit and credit card numbers recently.

Photo by Deb Hill

 

Check your bank accounts daily. No, really – that’s the advice of several local bankers in response to the growing number of local residents whose accounts have been “broken into.” In Lewistown, as many as 40 to 50 bank patrons per day are reporting fraudulent charges, mostly the result of stolen debit card information.

Joni Hartford, teller supervisor and customer service representative at Bank of the Rockies, said a lot of the fraudulent charges she’s seen are from the East Coast, especially the New York and New Jersey areas.

“I don’t know how or when people’s debit card information was stolen,” Hartford said. “It could have been a ‘skimmer’ [a device attached to swipe machines that intercepts card information] or maybe a database was hacked. We have seen quite a few recently, though.”

Hartford said people need to monitor their accounts regularly.

“If you see something that doesn’t look right, contact your financial institution,” she advised. “They will shut off your credit or debit card.”

Hartford said Bank of the Rockies uses a fraud monitoring service to watch for what she referred to as “red flags” in customers’ accounts.

“For example, if the customer buys something in Lewistown and a very short time later makes a purchase in New Jersey, that’s a red flag,” Hartford explained. “The company will call the customer to confirm the charges. Our fraud service calls from an 800 number. Sometimes people don’t want to answer 800 calls, but they should if it is from a financial institution. The service will not ask for any personal information, but they will give the last four numbers of the card and ask if the card holder made a certain transaction. If the cardholder says ‘no,’ the card will be cut off immediately.”

Most of the fraudulent charges are caught before they go though a customer’s account, Hartford said, but if they do go through, Bank of the Rockies will reimburse the account.

“There is a time limit for reporting fraudulent charges, though,” Hartford said, “so don’t wait to contact your bank.”

Fergus Federal Credit Union members also have seen a rash of fraudulent charges recently, amounting to as many as 50 per day. Each Monday the credit union receives a report from the Identity Theft Resource Center, listing companies whose databases have been hacked. The most recent report was 174 pages long, including organizations ranging from health care services to colleges and universities to small businesses.

“So far, most of what we’ve been seeing is coming from an international malware attack the FBI is looking into,” said Kendra Wichman, lead IT tech and insurance clerk at the credit union. “The attack hit store and hotel chains, financial institutions and other businesses. That’s how they got people’s card information.”

Wichman said many of the fraudulent charges made on credit union cards were made in other states, such as Georgia and Massachusetts. The credit union’s fraud center flags out of state charges and puts a block on the card until they can reach the cardholder to verify whether those charges are correct.

“If you are traveling, always let your bank know,” Wichman advised. “If a fraudulent charge appears, let us know right away. Fraudulent charges will be refunded to the account.”

“I hate to say this,” Wichman added, “but if you are shopping in big box stores, you may want to pay with cash or a check, just because their databases have been broken into so often.”

Julie Fogerson with the Wells Fargo Regional Communications Office said a breach of a local merchant’s database is the most common reason for large groups of cards in a single community to be compromised.

“We continuously monitor accounts for unusual patterns and activity,” Fogerson told the News-Argus in an email on Wednesday.”

Wells Fargo card customers are protected if their card or card number is lost, stolen or used without authorization.

Fogerson suggests customers monitor their accounts regularly and use the company’s online services to set up alerts that tell them when their card is used.

“We also recommend that customer’s user names and passwords for bank accounts be different than from any of their other online accounts, and that they change the password frequently.”

All bank representatives emphasize those who think their cards or card numbers have been used without authorization should contact their financial institution immediately.

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