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The skimmer I found in Belltown, May 15th, 2011

UPDATE: Since writing this piece, I've learned my AMEX card, which wasn't used in the skimmer, was cloned and used to buy $300 of maternity clothing in Philly the next day. No good deed goes unpunished!

UPDATE2: Revised the incorrect absolutism "none of those" with "few of those" below.

It was Sunday night, on my way to a show, when I stopped at my neighborhood bank to get some money. You know the routine: take out wallet, remove ATM card, swipe it through the card-reader on the door, then enter the vestibule. Except this time, something caught my attention as I slid my card into the reader: it seemed too large and freshly painted. My Spider-sense told me, "this isn't right." I pulled my card out, the device split apart and fell to the ground. I'd found my first 'skimmer'.

'Skimming' is a form of identity theft in which the information encoded in the magnetic stripe of a bank card is surreptitiously captured for re-use by others. Skimmers are the phony card readers used to do this, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Skimming is illegal, the people who do it are crooks, and law enforcement have been hard at work capturing them in the Seattle area. Years ago a very polite but firm agent from my bank called to inquire if I had meant to purchase 3 Sony televisions in Lahore, Pakistan the previous day. "Where is your credit card now, sir?" he asked.  "I'm sitting on it..." I replied.  Turns out I'd been skimmed at a restaurant the night before. Card cancelled, new card issued.

This time, the skimmer was paired with a phony convex security mirror concealing a small video camera. The mirror and camera were adhered with glue to the top of the frame around the ATM machine. The skimmer captures your card information, the hidden camera records you entering your PIN number. Put the two together and in a few hours thieves could collect dozens of usable details to clone onto cards or sell. Using a similar technique thieves stole $400,00 in just two months from Eastside banks.

When I inspected this device it was clear it had been stuck to the authentic card reader with tape (the gray squares in the photo). It had a green light on, a battery, and the card-reading components. I don't know enough to tell whether it was storing card data locally or transmitting it in real-time via Bluetooth. I assumed it held card details belonging to me and my neighbors and shouldn't be left sitting on the ground to be collected.  Skimming and other forms of 'electronic crime'  have grown so prevalent the Secret Service operates an Electronic Crimes Task Force spanning 25 cities across the US. The Seattle office of this task force might even be in my neighborhood. So my first priority was to secure the skimmer with law enforcement or the bank. It was harder than I expected to do so:

  1. I called 911 and was told "If you can't hang around until an officer arrives, that's ok." And leave the skimmer? No way.
  2. I called the Chase Bank Customer Service number posted on the bank door, but couldn't bypass the automated system without an account number
  3. I entered bogus account numbers into Chase's automated telephone system just to get a live person on the phone
  4. I asked the CHASE representative if they could respond locally after hours, but all he could do was record the call and pass it along
  5. I waited 30-minutes for Police, then picked up both parts using my shirt-sleeve and took them home
  6. I called the Seattle branch of the Secret Service's Electronic Crimes Task Force, but the number was disconnected
  7. I emailed the Seattle branch of the Secret Service's Electronic Crimes Task Force, but my email bounced back as undeliverable
  8. I called the Secret Service in Seattle directly and asked for the local special agent on the ECTF (he appears in the press a lot on this very issue)
  9. After getting routed to another agent instead, I left a voice-mail message, but got no reply
  10. I tweeted a photo of it to @SeattlePD asking that their detective on the ECTF contact me, but got no reply

I finally called 911 again on Monday morning, and asked that an officer come to my house. When he arrived, we walked across the street and met the bank manager. She indicated all she'd do is turn the device over to the officer. But before we could do that, he got another call and ran out. While humorous at the time, I have to appreciate that officers on duty are interrupt-based. Any new emergency could trump whatever they are doing in the moment. He called back later, confirmed he had the device, took my details and that was that.

While there's several good ideas online for how consumers should handle card  fraud generally, few of those help in the moment. So if you find a skimmer in the wild, here's my advice. First, physically inspect every device before swiping your card. Check that the reader is secure, and not a glued-on/taped-on decoy. If it is phony, then:

  1. Look around you - Determine if your surroundings are safe enough for you to stay in the area a bit longer (some thieves might linger nearby)
  2. Call 911 immediately - ask if there's an Electronic Crime detective or officer they can send over
  3. Notify the bank - alert them to the device's presence, and make sure they remove it, turn off the ATMs, or otherwise block it's further use
  4. Tweet it - One neighbor who'd used this ATM the previous hour saw my photo of the skimmer online and cancelled his card right away
  5. Turn it in ASAP - If law and bank officials can't respond immediately (like on a Sunday night), secure the device yourself (use gloves or put it in a bag) and deliver it to your local precinct. Or call 911 and await their arrival in the comfort of your own home (instead of out at the bank at night).

Obviously, if you don't feel comfortable remaining in the area or taking it home with you, you should still call 911, notify the bank, and report it via social media. Banks themselves could streamline this process. Chase Bank offers an unhelpful 9 different phone numbers to call to report fraud. A phone-number to a live corporate security agent posted on the door would have been more comforting.

Stay sharp, and bank safe!

 

  • Robot Orchestra Built From Junkyard Scrap [VIDEOS]

    Music and technology mingle in the most fascinating ways these days, and music-playing robots are certainly fascinating enough for us.

    The KarmetiK Machine Orchestra was built by students at California Institute of the Arts near Los Angeles, California. The students used junkyard salvage and traditional instruments to create the bots.

    In addition to vinyl decks and mixing boards, the ensemble also features three entirely new musical instruments, including NotomotoN, a dual-head drum with twelve beaters and a mallet orchestra.

    “Combining intriguing high-tech entertainment with practical applications of cutting-edge research, the orchestra brings together one-of-kind robotic instruments with human performers using modified instruments and unique human computer interfaces,” reads a CalArts site on the project.

    We’ve covered futuristic musical instruments in the past. How do you think the KarmetiK Machine Orchestra measures up? Does music still need a human touch?

    Check out this behind-the-scenes look at how the orchestra was conceived and built, then check out a few performance clips in the gallery below.

    Machine Lab at CalArts

    The KarmetiK Machine Orchestra lab at CalArts.

    Calif. Students Build Musical Robots, Then Jam

    Students at the California Institute of the Arts have built an orchestra of interactive musical robots. Musicians use specialized computer programs to play the robotic instruments. The AP sat in on a rehearsal for an upcoming concert. (May 13)

    Instruments from The Machine Orchestra :: Karmetik

    CalArts, graduation 2010: Two instruments were hooked up to a keyboard so visitors could try them out. www.themachineorchestra.com

    CalArts KarmetiK Machine Orchestra | Jan. 2010

    KarmetiK Machine Orchestra, directed by CalArts Director of Music Technology Ajay Kapur, preparing for their debut performance at CalArts REDCAT January 27th, 2010. Video by Scott Groller http://www.calarts.edu http://www.redcat.org

    image courtesy of Flickr, saschapohflepp

    More About: music, Orchestra, Robot, robot orchestra, robots

    For more Tech & Gadgets coverage:

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  • Pakistani Starfleet Explorers
    Screen-shot-2011-05-12-at-8.33.jpg

    Allow me, please, to introduce you to The Pakistani Starfleet Explorers, a project by Kenny "Hassan" Irwin, an artist based in Palm Springs, CA:

    [M]illions of courageous men and women heroes that span the cosmos who know no bounds, no limits and explore in a bold way as far as their Bedford Truck Starships will take them to the very ends of galaxies we know so little about to learn more about & in turn learn more about ourselves. There is literally 1000s of stories to be told about these adventurous heros who comprise the flagship of Earth based Starfleets under direction of UNIPASA [United National Inter Planetary Space and Air Association], A galactic village of federal star-travel achievers represented by countless 10,000s of intelligent species which include humans. Yes, indeed.............we must not forget the Pakistani Starfleet have saved more lives than you can imagine from fate less than kind to sowing the seeds of new emergency civilizations to making new friends they knew they never had with life never seen before. They are true bold achievers where others may ask "what is out there?" and the people of the Pakistani Starfleet say......."we shall see".

    View the massive Flickr set here. I think this one is my favorite so far.

    You can purchase prints of his work here.

    (via Tim Bailey)

    The epic photoshopper behind this project is also the guy behind the awesome "outsider news" YouTube channel Dovetastic Microwave Theater (via this BB comment).

    Screen-shot-2011-05-12-at-8.30.jpg


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  • Help identify this vintage electronics component

    mystery_board

    [Windell] over at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories has reached out in order to help them identify a mystery piece of electronics equipment they came across a few years ago. Discovered at an electronics surplus store, the mystery component looks like a cross between an over-sized chess board and a breadboard. Failing to identify it they eventually disposed of the board, snapping a couple of pictures for good measure before it was gone for good.

    Recently while visiting a local electronics flea market, they came across what looked to be a similar, though much smaller board. This piqued their curiosity and compelled them to dig out the pictures of the mystery board in hopes of finally discovering what it was. Using markings on the new board they found, the team at EMSL located some images of a patchboard cartridge that looked quite similar to their mystery object. Upon closer inspection however, they think that the two pieces might be related, but are not quite the same item.

    Swing by their site and chime in if you happen to have any good leads – we’re sure they will appreciate it.

    Filed under: misc hacks

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