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Thieves 'skimming' card users' identities; Fargo cops being trained

FARGO - It's a scam that could easily play out at a restaurant, gas station or ATM, and Paige Hanson makes it look easy.

She takes her credit card and swipes it through a "skimmer," a slotted device that reads and copies the information - name, card number and expiration date - contained in the card's magnetic strip.

Then, she swipes a blank white card through the same device, which is connected to a laptop computer. A software program transfers the data onto the blank card, and presto - within seconds, she has a duplicate credit card.

"It's pretty scary," said Hanson, educational program manager for LifeLock, an identity theft protection company. "If you have a charge on your credit card and you still have your credit card in your wallet, you could have been a victim of this identity theft scam."

West Fargo Police Chief Arland Rasmussen said that while skimming has not surfaced locally to his knowledge, he decided to host a training summit sponsored by LifeLock and the FBI's Law Enforcement Executive Development Association on Tuesday to prepare area law enforcement for skimming and other identity theft scams.

"We want to be knowledgeable as to what to expect when it does come here, and serve our citizens the best we can," he said.

Thirty-six people from 17 agencies in North Dakota and Minnesota took part in the training at Fargo's Public Safety Building.

North Dakota ranked 49th among states for identity theft complaints last year, but the 199 complaints received was a 6 percent increase over the previous year, Hanson said, citing Federal Trade Commission data. Minnesota ranked 36th.

Skimming requires minimal investment, and the payoff for criminals can be substantial, Hanson said.

The software is easy to obtain, she said, and the skimmer hardware is often purchased on Craigslist or eBay by criminals who know how to assemble it.

As for the blank cards, "I can buy 100 of them for $7 online," Hanson said.

A clunky skimmer model costs $750, but a handheld model the size of a ring box costs $500 and holds 500 card numbers, she said.

That can be lucrative for a waiter or waitress who wants to skim credit card numbers from customers, Hanson said. The numbers are typically bundled by a third party and sold on the black market, she said.

Other skimmers may break into gas pumps and ATMs and temporarily replace the card reader with their own skimmer, coming back later to collect customers' data.

"So, you still get your gas, you still get the money from the ATM, but you don't know that you're compromised until you check your statement," she said.

Tips for protecting yourself against identity theft

Unfortunately, there's no single step for protecting against identity theft, said Paige Hanson of LifeLock, an identity theft protection company that provided training to law enforcement in Fargo on Tuesday.

However, she offered some tips for cardholders:

* Be more aware of who actually needs your information, and stay on top of identity theft trends.

* If you're going to use a debit or credit card, use the credit card. It's not tied directly to your bank account, so you won't immediately lose money if someone runs up your bill.

* Check your statements closely and go online often to review your card activity. Use to get free credit reports to check for open accounts in your name.

* Some companies allow you to receive free cellphone or email alerts for purchases that exceed a certain dollar amount.

* If you fall victim to credit card or bank fraud, report it to police because companies usually require a police report number to reverse the charges.

* Don't do online shopping or banking over unsecured wireless networks, as scammers may intercept your information.