I lost £1,270 to a hole-in-the-wall gang

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The Independent Online

At the beginning of last week I made an unpleasant discovery: I have been cloned. Not me personally but my bank card, which someone has been using to remove up to £450 a day from cash machines in west London. By the time I spotted it, £1,270 had been stolen from my account, using technology that is perfectly legal to obtain. It is part of a larger picture of ATM fraud which cost British banks £39m last year, and can result in thousands of pounds being removed from your account without your knowledge. Unless you have been negligent, the banks have to return your money, but the immediate effect is to leave you shocked, worried and without access to cash because the genuine card has to be destroyed.

At the beginning of last week I made an unpleasant discovery: I have been cloned. Not me personally but my bank card, which someone has been using to remove up to £450 a day from cash machines in west London. By the time I spotted it, £1,270 had been stolen from my account, using technology that is perfectly legal to obtain. It is part of a larger picture of ATM fraud which cost British banks £39m last year, and can result in thousands of pounds being removed from your account without your knowledge. Unless you have been negligent, the banks have to return your money, but the immediate effect is to leave you shocked, worried and without access to cash because the genuine card has to be destroyed.

At first, I couldn't understand what had happened. The card has never been out of my possession and I carry the PIN in my head. My neighbour Frank was equally alarmed, returning from holiday in Florida to discover that two withdrawals of £300 had been made from his account in his absence. Neither of us knew that card cloning is virtually undetectable until money starts disappearing from your account. The thieves insert a tiny skimming device to the card entry slot of an ATM, which reads the magnetic strip when you insert your card. They also mount a miniature camera, focused on the key pad, which records your PIN. (It doesn't work with "chip and PIN" cards, I am told, but many people don't yet have them.) This information is then transferred to a blank card, which they use to withdraw the daily maximum from your account.

Frank was lucky because the Halifax spotted the unusual transactions, tried to contact him and cancelled his card. In my case, the Royal Bank of Scotland did not notice fraudulent withdrawals of £370, £450 and £450 on consecutive days. Since I am not in the habit of roaming up and down Cromwell Road late at night, maxing out my cash card, alarm bells should have been ringing. They weren't, and the Royal Bank has told me it does not have the capacity to monitor every account. The bank has also admitted that the times at which the money was taken, just before and after midnight, constitute a "classic fraud pattern".

None of this information was offered when I first reported the theft at my local branch. On the contrary, I immediately felt under suspicion and was told I would get the money back only after a fraud investigation which would take up to six weeks - a position which changed when I finally lost patience and called the bank's press office. Four days after reporting it, the money was back in my account, by which time I had discovered that two more friends had fallen victim to the same fraud. We all live in the same area and when Frank reported it to the local police on Wednesday, he was told he was the fourth that day.

My sleuthing instincts aroused, I began to suspect I could identify the ATM that had been tampered with. I discovered that my local newsagent had seen two cars park near this very machine at five past six one morning in July, and had watched as some men approached it with a black box. They hung around for an hour, going backwards and forwards to the machine, and she was alarmed enough to call the police, who suggested she should try to get a closer look at the black box herself. "They just weren't interested," she told me last week.

When I asked the police in west London why no one responded to her information, a spokesman said that calls have to be prioritised. "Obviously she didn't witness a violent crime and she wasn't in imminent danger," he said.

True, but if the police don't have sufficient resources to investigate such reports immediately, what is to stop fraudsters fitting skimming devices to cash machines all over the country? Perhaps that's exactly what they have done, which may be one of the reasons why the cost of ATM fraud has more than quadrupled since 1997.

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