published Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Police investigate massive bank card scheme in North Georgia

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WHAT TO DO?

Consumers who think their accounts may have been compromised should call their bank and the Walker County Sheriff's Department at (706) 638-1512.

Banks and financial companies involved so far:

  • Bank of America
  • Bank of Chickamauga
  • Bank of LaFayette
  • Chase
  • Citibank
  • Cohutta Banking Co.
  • First Tennessee Bank
  • FSG
  • Gateway
  • Northwest Georgia Bank
  • Regions
  • Southeast Federal Credit Union
  • EPPICards, an electronic payment option for child support
  • SunTrust employee cards
  • Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union
  • United Community Bank
  • Walmart employee cards
  • Wells Fargo

Source: Walker County Sheriff's office

Local police and the FBI are investigating how hundreds of bank customers in North Georgia had thousands of dollars stolen from their accounts over the Thanksgiving holidays.

In one of the area's biggest bank fraud schemes, police and bank officials believe the debit card numbers could have been stolen in an elaborate skimming scheme at a LaFayette, Ga., business. Skimmers are devices that record information on bank cards' magnetic strips.

But that is only a theory.

"It's a very perplexing case," said LaFayette Police Sgt. Stacey Meeks. "At this point, we don't know where the breach is."

So far, 17 banks or financial companies have been compromised and hundreds of customers in Walker and Chattooga counties have reported money stolen, Walker sheriff's office Sgt. Michelle Brown said. In Walker County alone, nearly $20,000 has been reported stolen, Brown said.

Police still are sorting through the numbers because many customers only reported the missing money to their bank and didn't fill out a police report, Brown said. By Monday afternoon, officials predicted more than 500 people had been affected.

The FBI now has stepped in to help assist local police, who say they could be over their heads with the large-scale investigation.

"We just have so many [accounts involved]," Meeks said. "How do we combat that?"

What makes this scheme unique is the large number of victims in such a close radius, FBI spokesman Special Agent Stephen Emmett said.

"That's got our attention," he said.

In October, U.S. Secret Service agents investigated a case in which two men placed skimmer devices on ATM card readers in East Ridge, Tenn., and Dalton, Ga. While the men were arrested in Nashville in connection with the skimming incidents, police didn't know of any local accounts that were compromised.

Calls to LaFayette police and the Walker sheriff's office started to trickle in last Wednesday as bank customers reported their cards had been used in Texas, Michigan and as far away as Canada, Mexico and France, officials said.

Reports continued to come in by the hundreds on Thanksgiving and Black Friday from inside the LaFayette city limits, across Walker County and in Chattooga County. Even Meeks and Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said they were among the victims.

Authorities said they are investigating every option. One theory is a skimming device could have been used on a credit/debit card machine at a local store to steal the debit card numbers and PIN numbers. The thieves then could have created duplicate cards.

The information could have been stolen 30, 60 or even 90 days ago, but the duplicated cards weren't sold or used until the large-scale holiday bargains were offered last week, Wilson said.

Every bank in the LaFayette area had customers with card numbers stolen. Local bank officials say they are investigating the scheme along with police.

"This is the most disputed transactions we've received from a suspected skimming scheme," Stan Guess, a spokesman for Northwest Georgia Bank, said in an email.

By Monday morning, Northwest Georgia Bank had 60 debit card customers with disputed charges in the LaFayette area, Guess said. No new transactions were reported the rest of the day, he said.

"We don't believe it had anything to do with the banks," he said. "We have checked our end."

Meanwhile, LaFayette merchants said they are taking extra precautions to make sure no fraudulent transactions take place in their area.

"I'm just making sure the card is signed on the back," said Mark Hise, owner of Music on the Square in LaFayette.

But small business owners said they don't believe the breach of security came from downtown shops, but instead at larger businesses that deal with far more customers than locally owned stores.

"We don't do debit cards in our business," said Danielle Hix, an owner of Debbi's Flower Shop.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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bryseana said...

This is a universal problem now. Something needs to somehow to make it harder for criminals.

November 29, 2011 at 9:54 a.m.
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