Electronic Pickpocketing: Credit Card Cloned Onto Room Key

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(Memphis) When WREG On Your Side Investigators showed you the threat posed by electronic pickpocketing it took the internet by storm.

It was a story that’s been viewed more than 12 million times on-line.

Our expert, armed with an off-the-shelf device, was able to read radio chips in credit and debit cards and swipe numbers and expiration dates without even touching your wallet.

But what he’s able to do with that information will likely leave you shaking your head.

In an instant, Walter Little learned how easily he could be swiped.

“There it is,” said our expert, showing Little a computer screen. “There’s your credit card number.”

“Yep,” relied Little as he looked at his credit card information as the card itself sat in his wallet, tucked inside his pocket.

Despite what we’ve shown you, credit card companies tell WREG On Your Side Investigators, their credit cards equipped with radio chips are secure.

The radio chips are what make the electronic pickpocketing possible.

The companies say even if someone did electronically pickpocket you, they couldn’t do anything with the information.

That’s because the card issuer’s claim embedded security codes that a scanner wouldn’t pick up are needed to actually make a purchase.

But that’s not true says Walt Augustinowicz, an expert who travels the country demonstrating electronic pickpocketing.

“They’ve got to know it can be done because we do it,” said Augustinowicz.

He points to a demonstration he did for WTHR-TV in Indiana.

Augustinowicz took information scanned from a card with radio technology, and with permission, copied it onto the magnetic stripe of his hotel room key.

He used the key to pay for a drink at an airport restaurant.

The video shows that no one said a thing about the transaction.

“Anybody could have looked down and said, ‘Hey, that’s a hotel room key,” said Augustinowicz.

Augustinowicz is founder of Identity Stronghold.

The company makes Secure Sleeves that block scanners from reading the radio waves.

“This is all new to me,” explained David Carey of Bartlett, after Augustinowicz was able to scan his credit card information while his wallet was still in his pocket. “I’m still kind of baffled by it. I don’t know what to think. It’s incredibly easy.”

Or is it?

“I’ve known about it for a number of years,” said Special Agent in Charge Rick Harlow of the Secret Service field office in Memphis. “It’s just not been the problem it’s perceived to be.”

Harlow has never seen a case of electronic pickpocketing.

He believes it’s because a criminal would have to get within inches of a person’s wallet.

Then, only about a quarter of credit and debit cards have radio frequency technology.

“He’s going to have to walk through the mall and getting very close to people for a couple of hours to get, 15 cards?” reasoned Harlow. “Where, as if you can surreptitiously place a skimmer on an ATM that’s fairly popular, you might get 100 cards an hour.”

The Identity Theft Resource Center warned of bad guys with skimmers reading radio chips in December 2010 after we first reported the threat.

Now the group’s executive director believes it’s much ado about nothing.

“We’re all hearing that it’s a possibility,” said Jay Foley of ITRC. “None of us are seeing any indication that it’s a fact that it’s happening.”

Augustinowicz insists it’s just a matter of time.

We watched as he easily got close enough to scan people outside the FedEx Forum.

This time his scanner was off, but clearly no one stopped him.

“Three or four months ago, 99 percent of the people had never even heard of it so they wouldn’t know,” said Augustinowicz. “If they saw this,” he said holding up a case hiding the card scanner, “they wouldn’t even know what it is.”

He denies being driven by profits. He markets a special sleeve for credit cards which are designed to protect them from skimmers. He tells people if they can’t afford a sleeve for their cards, aluminum foil will do the trick.

He says, more than anything, he believes it’s time credit card companies’ own-up to the risk.

“I’m an elected official and I’m oblivious to something like this would even be in circulation,” said Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey after watching Augustinowicz’s demonstration. “So that’s not good.”

“If the credit card companies insist that you can’t do anything with that, I challenge them to post their information, their personal credit card number and expiration date online and give everyone permission to go at it,” said Augustinowicz. “See how many people charge things to their account.”

To see if your card could be vunerable, look for a symbol similar to a speaker with radio waves on the card.

That indicates it has radio frequency technology in it.

Experts say one of the easiest things you can do to limit damage from thieves is to check your credit card statements.

If you notice charges you didn’t make, report them right away to your bank or credit card company.

Most companies will not hold you responsible for unauthorized charges if you catch them and report it.