Organised criminal gangs are responsible for a massive increase in the cases of “skimming” recorded in Switzerland since the beginning of the year.
Skimming – whereby information contained in the magnetic strip of a bank card, and the corresponding pin code, is stolen and later used to skim money from the cardholder’s account – is also on the rise across Europe, according to police.
A spokesman for police in canton Vaud, Jean-Christophe Sauterel, told swissinfo.ch cases of skimming in Switzerland had “exploded” since the beginning of 2011.
“It is something that is absolutely organised, both in terms of the technology used and the logistics,” said Sauterel. “It’s principally carried out by Romanian and Bulgarian criminals. We know this from the arrests that we have made.”
Sauterel said criminals were targeting ATMs, card payment machines in supermarkets, and also railway ticket distributers. He said the ready availability on the internet of materials used for skimming activities had ensured that the problem was becoming increasingly common across Europe.
“It’s a problem which has affected all industrialised countries,” Sauterel said. “The French have been particularly hit by this phenomenon. It’s not one group, but several groups that move all around Europe, installing their equipment.”
Statistics compiled by Swiss banking services provider SIX Group reveal the number of ATM machines manipulated for skimming by criminals in Switzerland rose from 32 machines in 2009, to 135 in 2010, before jumping to 225 machines in the first four months of this year alone.
“This year, until the end of April, we estimate a total volume of $2 million (SFr1.69 million) was stolen,” SIX Group spokeswoman Sindy Schmiegel told swissinfo.ch. “That is what we registered as a service provider for Switzerland. It’s a huge volume.”
Schmiegel said the group had also seen a dramatic increase in the number of cards being blocked because of suspected suspicious activity – from 6,200 blocked cards in 2009, up to a some 22,000 in the first four months of 2011. She said SIX Group blocked cards as a fraud prevention measure.
“By our calculations, we consider that we can avoid fraud of several million francs so we prefer to block cards if there is any suspicion,” said Schmiegel.
One victim of skimming from the canton of Fribourg, who wished to remain anonymous, told swissinfo.ch her card was blocked by her bank because of “suspected fraud” two months after its details were skimmed while she used it at her local supermarket.
“I contacted my bank manager who told me that my card details and pin had been copied and when it had happened,” she said. “He told me it was called skimming. He thought the criminals had tried to use a card with my details abroad, but had been unsuccessful.”
In most cases of skimming, a device which collects the data contained in the magnetic strip of a bank card has been inserted into the ATM or card reader unbeknownst to anyone but the owner of the device.
The pin is then obtained, either by a camera mounted above the ATM or by somebody watching as the card owner enters it into the machine.
“The most important thing is to protect the pin code,” said Schmiegel.
Once the two elements of data have been obtained, they are copied to a blank card using an encoding machine and the new card is then used to purchase goods or withdraw money, usually in a different country.
“You need to have a minimum of knowledge to go and steal the information but it’s not something that is very complicated,” said Sauterel.
Sauterel said that as the use of magnetic strip technology has become more common for applications other than banking in recent years, so too had the encoding machines which are readily available for purchase on the internet.
“It’s clear that you need a minimum of material to encode the card, that’s material which was until a few years ago not at all available, which was limited to professionals,” said Sauterel.
“Today, they are common materials. A machine which can encode a card is something that can be ordered on the internet which is not at all expensive.”
Although the criminals who attempted to skim the card of the victim swissinfo.ch spoke to were ultimately unsuccessful, the woman said she is now “nervous” of using ATMs and paying for goods in stores.
“The shop where it happened is one I go to every week,” she said. “The bank told me it was unlikely to happen there again as the criminals only target one shop for a few hours and then move on.”
“One thing I will do is change my pin more regularly, but otherwise I don’t think there is much you can do.
"The worrying thing about this is that the criminals seem to be one step ahead of the banks. You just have to get unlucky and your account is cleared out.”
Key figures -Switzerland
2009 – 32
2010 – 135
2011 to end April – 225
2009 - 6,200
2010 - 5,500
2011 to end April – 22,500
Source: SIX Groupend of infobox
Use your free hand to cover the one entering your pin to prevent the code from being filmed.
Make sure nobody is watching as you enter your pin code.
If the ATM or card reader appears to have been tampered with, alert authorities.
After use, immediately store your card in a safe place.
If the card becomes stuck in the machine, immediately have your bank block your card.
Avoid isolated ATM machines at night.
Swiping your card to enter an enclosed ATM area after hours does not require a pin code. If asked for a pin, be suspicious.
Source: Vaud Policeend of infobox