The whispers started months ago; someone knew someone on St. Thomas whose debit card was compromised. The talk continued on social media sites and at coffee shops and bars across St. Thomas and St. John as more and more people became victims of credit card and debit card fraud.
Victims include customers of FirstBank VI, BancoPopular, Merchant’s Commercial Bank, ScotiaBank, Bank of St. Croix and Bank of America. Many of the victims reported having been at restaurants, a gas station and an ATM machine all in the Red Hook area of St. Thomas before learning that their accounts were hacked, but there have been cases of fraud reported on St. Croix as well.
Charges range from less than $50 to thousands with compromised cards being used for purchases in locations from St. Thomas to Louisiana and even Europe and the United Arab Emirates.
Yet law enforcement and government officials have little to no information about what can only be called, at this point, a rash of credit card and debit card fraud. While word of mouth discussions on St. John and St. Thomas put the number of confirmed cases at more than 50, V.I. Police Department spokeswoman Melody Rames said the department has received only one report of credit card fraud in the last three months.
In a press release issued Monday afternoon, VIPD Assistant Commissioner Thomas Hannah urged victims to file reports on all cases of credit card and debit card fraud to the department.
“We understand there have been a number of persons on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix who have experienced credit card fraud, but our reports do not reflect that trend,” Hannah said in a prepared statement.
“It is imperative that once a victim notifies their banking institution, the next step is to make a formal report to the proper authority, which is the Police Department or the Attorney General’s Office. In the last three months the VIPD has received a minimal number of credit card fraud reports, but we know the problem is more widespread.”
Police officials follow a protocol for fraud cases that involves the department’s Insular Investigation Unit, contacting the victim’s bank and, on a case-by-case basis, reaching out to other local and federal agencies, according to the VIPD.
Virgin Islands Department of Justice special investigator James
McCall was also quoted in VIPD statement assuring the public that investigations into credit card fraud “are not dormant."
McCall urged victims to report any fraud "as soon as it happens" and said many frauds originate in Florida but "can happen anywhere.”
He said, “Locals may be more susceptible to be defrauded using their credit cards at various bars and restaurants on the islands."
Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and FBI officials did not return phone calls requesting comment. V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency officials said to call VIPD for information.
Except for the Police Department’s press release, government officials have little to say on the matter. Victims, however, have been talking online and in person, although many did not want their names to be printed.
"There are tons of people whose cards seem to have been compromised in Red Hook," said a St. Thomas resident. "And the cards are being used for purchases in New York, Europe, St. Thomas and other places, so these people may actually be smart enough to sell the card information on the black market instead of trying to clone the cards themselves."
A St. John resident said, "I have two friends who were on vacation down here and when they got back to Boston, the same thing happened to them. It has happened to at least eight people confirmed that I know. Some of them had their accounts compromised and some had their accounts cleaned out.”
Another resident said, "My wife’s card got hit two days ago right as we ate in Red Hook.”
“I had friends meet us for dinner last night,” he continued. “All 10 were locals on St. Thomas and all 10 had heir cards hit."
Some victims were targeted back in June while others were hit just this past weekend.
On Saturday, a St. John resident said, "My card was hit this afternoon. I got a call from Merchant’s Bank about a $319 charge at a liquor store in New York City. They instantly canceled my card and I have to go and fill out paperwork for a new one. While I was sitting at a BBQ and talking about my card being hit today, a friend on St. Thomas got an email that his credit card had been hit for fraud. This is absolutely ridiculous."
Credit card fraud victims are encouraged to report their incidents to VIPD in order for officials to get an accurate account of cases of fraud happening in the territory. Residents should also protect themselves by monitoring their bank accounts and keeping an eye on their cards.
Detectives from VIPD’s Insular Investigation Unit said they are investigating a few cases of cell phone and phone card scams where the “con artists” pretend to be a family member with personal details, according to the press release issued by the department.
This scenario, however, does not reflect what multiple victims have described as their experiences with fraud occurring after they used their cards at restaurants, gas stations and ATM machines.
Many people have suggested the criminals are using a credit card skimmer, a portable device that can be attached to a credit card machine, gas pump or ATM machine. The skimmer passively reads the card data as the real card machine is working.
Credit card skimmers can be difficult to detect, but residents can examine the gas pump, ATM or credit card machine they are about to use to see if there are any odd looking attachments that might not match the paint or metal of the original machine.
McCall said in the VIPD press release that there can be various scams circulating in the Virgin Islands at any given time. The first line of defense against fraud is to identify suspicious charges immediately. Residents should check all banks balances daily and report any unauthorized charges to the bank and to law enforcement.
To report a scam, call VIPD on St. Thomas/St. John at 774-2211 and on St. Croix at 778-2211. Victims can also call 911 or Crime Stoppers USVI at 1-800-222-TIPS.
For more information on credit card skimmers and some pictures of what they can look like, check out http://krebsonsecurity.com/all-about-skimmers/.