TAMPA — Card in, card out, punch some buttons and ca-ching! It's usually a simple routine with automated teller machines, but what if someone, or something, is watching?
When Tampa police Cpl. Mark Altimari recently slid his debit card in the slot of the Bank of America ATM at 1720 E Fowler Ave., he knew something was wrong.
His card was stuck and the scanner was loose. A quick call to the bank manager confirmed his suspicions — he'd fallen prey to an increasingly common scam.
Police say thieves glue their own card readers over ATM readers to capture bank card numbers and place tiny cameras near PIN keypads. The devices record the information, which is downloaded when the fake scanners and cameras are retrieved later. Then comes pay day.
The fake scanners or keypads don't prevent ATM users from withdrawing money, so the scam can go undetected until a depleted balance rears its head.
Because Altimari removed the scanner and camera from the Bank of America ATM he used, police don't believe whoever put the devices there was able to steal anyone's money. Altimari changed his account and got a new card anyway. He hasn't used an ATM since.
"It just goes to show you, anyone can be a victim," said Altimari, who was on duty and in uniform when he was scammed. "At this point, we've just got to make sure there are no more victims."
His was the first of several card-scanner cons this month in the Tampa Bay area. A teller at the Pilot Bank at 4005 S Dale Mabry Highway discovered a fake scanner and personal identification number keypad at an ATM on Friday. Police said no Tampa residents have reported missing money.
It was a different story in Clearwater, where at least 20 Wachovia customers reported missing money during two days last week. An investigation of the ATMs at the branch, 2699 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., found evidence of an adhesive on a drive-through ATM, Clearwater police said.
The bank is still reviewing surveillance videos and has not released any information on victims.
Kathy Harrison, a spokeswoman for Wachovia's Florida branches, said the bank inspects its ATMs regularly. She said the bank has a zero-liability policy, which means anyone who has money stolen can get it all back.
Representatives from the Tampa banks would not comment.
Tampa police Sgt. Becky Bodamer said it appears numerous groups are responsible. During a Monday news conference, she said the culprits could be local or international criminals, citing the recent discovery of possible Romanian links to the activity.
The best way to avoid the scam is to inspect ATMs carefully before using them, police said. Jiggle the card reader and look closely for loose parts.
Cover the keypad as you type in your pin, and don't accept help from anyone standing nearby. Using ATMs inside banks or withdrawing money at a grocery store is generally safe, Bodamer said.
Bodamer said it's up to banks to monitor their ATMs. If every bank visually inspected its machines each day, tampering would be much more difficult, she said.