In late December 2019 and early January 2020, Piedmont Police Department and Bank of America began receiving reports from Piedmont residents of unauthorized withdrawals against their bank debit cards from locations in the South Bay and Los Angeles area.
Piedmont Detective Jeff Spranza, who is leading the investigation, said six such incidents have been reported to the police department. In addition to those six, Bank of America informed police that they have received 11 reports. All of the known victims used the Bank of America branch at 345 Highland Avenue.
“The origin is here in Piedmont,” said Spranza. “We’re exploring everything as far as when this happened, how it happened and how many people have been affected. Those affected who have not filed a police report, we do encourage them to file one with a patrol officer here at Piedmont.”
Spranza said this is the largest number of connected ATM fraud cases he’s seen in his seven years at the department. There may still be more out there.
Losses ranged from $100 to $600 for each victim. Total losses will probably amount in the thousands. The most recent unauthorized withdrawals were made on Jan. 5 at ATMs in Los Altos and San Jose.
On Jan. 7, a Piedmont resident posted to the Nextdoor online bulletin board about the fraudulent bank activity. That post has more than 30 comments by residents living in and around Piedmont who shared similar experiences.
According to Piedmont police a skimming device was likely used to aid these crimes. “I’m looking at either an 80 or 90 percent chance that there was some skimming device of some sort that was placed here in Piedmont,” said Spranza. “That’s the only way that the information was captured and replicated to conduct these other unauthorized withdrawals.”
Piedmont resident Margaret Hiller received an alert from Bank of America of two potentially unauthorized ATM transactions in her account. One transaction was completed successfully and the other was declined.
“I could not figure out how this fraudulent transaction had occurred, since I had the card in my possession and do not ever use it as a debit card,” said Hiller. “I was shocked to discover that bank ATMs can be compromised in this way. I am aware of the risks with gas stations and other such machines, but a skimmer in a [bank] ATM raises a new level of concern.”
Skimming devices resemble the legitimate card readers that consumers encounter daily at ATMs and gas station pumps. Installed surreptitiously by bad guys, the skimmers steal information stored in the magnetic stripe of a customer’s bank card. Sophisticated thieves may also place cameras near or on ATMs to capture a customer’s pin number. Once that information is collected it is passed along to fraudsters who can print phony cards and make withdrawals against the unknowing victim’s account.
Said Spranza; “The skimming devices can be matched with the actual ATM itself and the only way to really tell is to look for different clues: if they look like they’re out of place on the ATM, if [anything] is loose, if there’s extra stuff on there.”
Spranza said it is not clear why the Bank of America branch in Piedmont was targeted, but one theory is that construction work in progress on the building gave the thief an opportunity to install a skimmer without drawing attention.
On Jan. 7, the ATM was inspected by Bank of America technicians who reported that they did not see anything unusual. Bank of America said new equipment was installed anyway.
Piedmont police encourage bank customers to change their pin numbers and to avoid using a number that can be easily guessed. The department also suggests using mobile banking apps instead of ATMs when possible. Lastly, the department advises customers to notify banks if you are traveling out of town for an extended period of time.
Banks have security protocols designed to alert customers to unusual use of their banking cards – excessively high withdrawals, multiple withdrawals, or withdrawals from unusual locations. These appear to have worked in at least some cases here as several Bank of America customers realized their cards had been compromised when they received messages from the bank that transactions had been declined.
Detective Spranza said there are no suspects so far. Detectives are working with Bank of America to review video surveillance and other images captured at the different banking locations.
Customer ATM fraud losses are usually covered by the bank, but replacing lost cash doesn’t always happen right away.
If you have questions or information, please contact Piedmont Detective Jeff Spranza at (510) 420-3013 or firstname.lastname@example.org