HOLIDAY — On Friday, Bank of America workers noticed that the ATM at their branch was scratched and covered in what appeared to be a gluey residue. Authorities were called to investigate, and they found something unnerving:
Over several nights this month, a thief or thieves placed a device — called a skimmer — on the ATM to read and copy card numbers. Such information from skimmers is then transferred onto cloned credit cards and used to withdraw cash at other ATMs.
The investigation has just begun, but 44 victims have been identified so far, with more than $26,000 stolen from their Bank of America accounts, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said.
"We think it's an organized group," said Detective John Suess with the Sheriff's Office's economic crimes unit. Skimmer crimes are not uncommon in Pasco, although Suess said this might be one of the largest ones, in terms of victims and cash stolen.
He said it appears that the skimmer was placed on the walk-up ATM at the Bank of America at 4539 Bartelt Road in the late evening and then removed in the early morning on several occasions this month. Suess said the theory is that the skimmer wouldn't be as noticeable to customers at night — though it might not have been noticeable during the day, depending on which type of machine was used.
Suess said some new skimmers are sophisticated and can be difficult to see if a person isn't already on guard for them.
How can people protect themselves from becoming victims?
Suess suggested that customers use ATMs that are inside banks or use the indoor or drive-through teller service.
Christina Beyer Toth, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, said all of the bank's customers are protected against unauthorized transactions on their accounts.
"We encourage customers to be extra vigilant and notify a banking center employee if there is something unusual about an ATM or their transaction," Beyer Toth said in a statement. She also urged customers to routinely monitor their bank accounts.
Suess said the information from the cards was used to withdraw cash throughout the Tampa Bay area. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office is working the case with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Clearwater Police Department, Suess said.
"We do anticipate this is going to grow," Suess said of the case.
"There's no telling where they are now," Suess said of the suspects, "if they are even local."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.