Sarah Klise was in King Park last Thursday watching her child play when she casually mentioned to a friend that someone had tried to illegally use her credit card that morning to buy an Apple computer.

The person Klise was talking to turned around, somewhat incredulous. Her credit card had been compromised as well. Before long other people wandered over with their own stories of credit card fraud and quickly determined that thieves had illegally used the cards of at least five families they knew.

In the last few months there has been a spike in the number of cases of credit card fraud and identity theft in Berkeley, according to Det. Cesar Melero of the fraud division of the Berkeley police department.  While he could not provide firm numbers of how many people had been affected, he did say that Bank of America sent out letters to 700 Berkeley customers in late March telling them that their cards may have been compromised. At one 50-person publishing company in Berkeley, at least eight people have had someone make illegal charges on their cards, according to an email sent to Berkeleyside.

And I got a call last Wednesday telling me that someone had just charged $2,000 to my card at a Wal-Mart in Nebraska.

“The more people you talk to, the more snowballing seems to happen,” said Klise.

Of course, this is an international issue, not a Berkeley issue. Credit card thieves have grown increasingly sophisticated in recent years, said Det. Melero. Now thieves often embed malware in the computer system of a company and steal hundreds of credit card numbers at a time.  Or they insert a skimmer that reads your card number in an ATM machine or gas station kiosk.

“There is no way to protect yourself from something like this unless you stop using credit cards,” said Det. Melero.

In a recent press release, the police department had these recommendations:

Fraud Prevention Tips:

  • Regularly check your bank statements and credit card bills and look for fraudulent charges.
  • If you shop over the internet, use reputable retailers.
  • Do not give personal information to anyone over the telephone or internet unless you know who you are talking to.

If You Become a Victim of Fraud:

  • Report the issue to your bank/credit card company.
  • When you talk to your bank/or credit card company, keep a detailed log of who you talk to and what was discussed.
  • Make a police report in the city or town where you reside.

Det. Malero said Berkeley police became aware of a spike in credit card thefts a few months ago when a number of Cal students noticed that they still had their credit cards in their wallets, but someone was using a duplicate card elsewhere in the country. Police determined that one business was the probable location of the scam. He declined to name the business but said it had replaced all its computer software.

Det. Malero has also been working with businesses around Berkeley to get them to assess the security of their credit card operations and help businesses make them more secure.

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

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26 Comments

  1. I can’t help but wonder if all restaurants that were scammed used the same credit card processor.

  2. Hello,

    I got nailed for almost $1500 from charges from a Spanish store just last week…. this all points to Picante, since I go there about once a week, and it has never happened before.

    My recommendation….. cash or check only. Debit cards are unsafe.

    Marc

  3. I to had my card used by someone in Virgina, Maryland. In march I used my American Express and in April someone tried to make a purchase at T mobile for $368 an at CVS. I live in CA. and had my card in my wallet. Luckly, both attempts were denied,

  4. Used our debit card at Picante in Berkeley in March. Two weeks ago our bank refused attempted charges at a gas station and a WalMart in Georgia. Until now we thought it was a new restaurant in Walnut Creek.

    Fortunately, Chase called us and didn’t even let the fraudulent charges go through in the first place.

  5. As the owner of Picante I am saddened to discover my restaurant was a common link in some of these cases of credit card fraud. I contacted the U.S. Secret Service who informed me that Picante was indeed one of many Bay Area victims in an international credit card scheme. I am so sorry to hear many of you were included and acknowledge how unsettling and inconvenient this violation of your privacy is.
    Here are the steps I have taken at the restaurant:
    • hired a qualified investigative firm referred to us by the Secret Service to pinpoint the breach, fix the breach and secure all future transactions.
    • replaced all our credit card swipe hardware and our current credit card software in the event these may have been impacted.
    • created a handout alerting all guests using credit cards to review their credit card statement, note questionable line items, and notify their credit card’s fraud department immediately.
    If you have any questions or information to contribute, please contact me at picantefraud@yahoo.com.

  6. Picante. All I can say is Picante in Berkeley. Me and four other of my co-workers have had our cards “skimmed” at the restaurant. And whern someone called them, the management said, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.” Nice customer service! I’ll never go back to Picante and have my secure information compromised again.

  7. I also had fraudulent charges on a card which I had been using at Picante. The charges were at Walmart in North Carolina. Several charges about $200 a piece totaling over $1,500.

    Unfortunately the only good credit card security is not using one. You can try and be selective about where you use it, but I certainly didn’t suspect Picante would be an untrustworthy place. The only good news is if you keep an eye on your charges you can always chargeback the fraudulent ones. It means replacing your card which can be a hassle, but at least there’s no net loss for the card holder… well, besides the agonizing time spent on the phone fixing it.

    What happened to the one-time use card numbers you could get for online transactions? That was good security. I can’t find any mention of them with my bank.

  8. I just got hit again on a totally different card, this one was used at picante!

  9. I don’t use credit cards much other than for auto-billing some regular expenses (to get miles) and I pay in full each month. So it was a bit of a surprise to get three calls in a row from the card company’s fraud division in the last week. The first two were legitimate. A little annoying (they often call early in the morning and we have a newborn) but good to know they’re on top of it. The last call was yesterday and I quickly got shunted to a nice person who ran down the list.

    Apparently starting last Saturday, someone started charging perfumes and jewelry online at a pretty rapid pace. The last time I actually used the card in a retail setting was at a local Sprint store where I bought a wireless data connector–and that was last Saturday. Not saying it’s them (since the card is on file with a number of providers for regular billing) but it’s funny how it all started the same day.

    They cancelled the card and are sending a new one. Folks using ATM cards may want to be extra vigilant with their accounts since most ATM cards can be used on the Visa network. At least there’s a daily purchase limit on an ATM card.

    Not anything as bad as Maureen’s plight with identity theft (oof!) but still…

  10. I have gotten hit twice in the past 2 months. The first fraud was a number of fraudulent charges at various WalMarts in Texas. Not 3 weeks after my new card was sent to me, it got compromised. This time the charges were in Tampa, Florida. My CC company also said there is not much I can do to prevent it. The thieves know it is harder to file an out of state police report, so they use the cards outside the home state. They can also re-write the name and zip info from the magnetic stripe when making the new bogus card, so all they need is a legit number and expiration date. My common denominator was a gas station on University. All the other purchases were local businesses where the card stayed in view.

  11. I am the leading Fraud specialist for my company and after reading your responses I wanted to let you all know of some items to keep yourself aware of when using your cards. You would be amazed at the ways people can take your card information. Some things to be weary of:

    ATM Skimmers(placed over the area you swipe your debit card, sometimes they use cameras to record your PIN entry as well)
    Gas Pump Skimmers(same as the ATM skimmer, but places on the gas pump you slide your own card into)
    Credit Card Skimmers on point of sale systems (make sure that the person swiping your card isn’t swiping it more than once, or if there is an additional unit your card swipes through)
    Card Re writers (like those used in hotels to re-right room info on the magnetic strip)

    I had posted earlier about our Facebook where I post daily on different types of Card Fraud (like this story). Feel free to check out some of the stories I posted on there and see if it can help Card Fraud from ever happening to you (again). I know that I take a second look at equipment I am going to use my cards on now that I have seen the devices they have out there.

  12. I had my card in my wallet, too, while someone else was charging stuff on my account. Capital One fraud dept. said there’s a big operation that creates new cards with the stolen number and then goes on shopping sprees around the country. Still, it’s so much easier to deal with than a stolen identity.

    I don’t see why the Berkeley Police Dept. can’t tell us which business was common to the Cal students who got their credit card info stolen.

  13. Dine Fraud Free, I thought your comment erred on the right side of the spam/information divide. You clearly wrote it, rather than being robot-generated. I’m happy for our readers to make up their own minds whether your information is useful or not, but I didn’t think it was spam. If I had, I would have deleted it before it appeared.

    I think you’d have greater impact, however, by using a personal name, rather than a brand identity.

  14. I also had charges from a walmart in Nebraska yesterday. I shopped at Berkeley Bowl, ate at Picante, bought items from REI and got gas in Oakland last week on the card that was used fraudulently. The bank stated that the person used the card in Nebraska, yet I never lost possession of the card.

  15. I apologize, maybe this wasn’t the forum. I found it interesting that the officer had stated that the only way to prevent this was to not use your card. I felt compelled to share that my company is doing something about it, and it is for public knowledge not spam. Everyone should be aware that there are solutions out there, they simply need to be implemented. I do apologize for any inconvenience to you Diane.

  16. To comment on the quote: “There is no way to protect yourself from something like this unless you stop using credit cards,” said Det. Melero.

    My company specializes in a a program called Dine Fraud Free. Our program eliminates customers cards from ever leaving their hands in a restaurant setting. This program completely eliminates the risk of fraud from ever happening. This is only for the Restaurant Setting, but skimmers are being used there as well. If you are interested in hearing more about this check out our social sites and website:

    http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Vancouver-WA/Alpine-Payment-Systems/86889831127?ref=ts

    http://www.alpinepaymentsystems.com

  17. My debit/credit card was used in Montreal in March, which Bank of America immediately recognized and called me as soon as it happened since I had just made purchases in Berkeley. Then my boyfriend came back to Berkeley from southeast Asia later in the same month, used his card only once while back in the States, and within one day thousands of dollars in charges were made at high-end outlet stores in Cabazon. This has been harder to clear than mine since he uses an overseas bank. We figured it happened at Fat Slice as that was the one charge he made before the fraudulent charges. You just can’t anticipate it anymore!

  18. Interesting connection Maureen, years ago some of the O.G. associated with Sacramento St area drug gangs got in the business of identity theft. My outgoing mail was stolen (never do that again) and my identity was sold to illegal immigrants working for Tyson Chicken along the border in Texas. Tyson used my SS# for a male employee without any scrutiny. He then used my identity to purchases a used car from Ford. His “wife” signed the loan app using my SS#. It was Ford who tracked me down. The Ford rep was reasonable once I insisted I knew who my husband was; they thought I was covering for the car thief. He explained that over 25% of their cars were stolen with stolen identification.

    In addition to mail theft the local gangsters obtained personal information using their girlfriend’s access to personal records on the job. One incident involved school district employees.

  19. My credit card number was also stolen in March. The thieves purchased $325 worth of junk at Happy Harry’s Walgreen’s in Delaware before Capital One flagged the card, but they attempted another six purchases before giving up.

    Having your credit card number stolen is a walk in the park compared to having your identity stolen. A few years ago someone got ahold of my ss#, date of birth, home address & phone, and went to town. This occurred shortly after I opened a home equity line of credit at Bank of America on Shattuck in downtown Berkeley. One of the credit agencies told me the phone number and home address of the person who was using my personal data. He lived on Sacramento St. in Berkeley. I filed a police report and asked the BPD to come with me and my trusty baseball bat to the address. They were too busy.

    I had to put a 7 year freeze at all three credit agencies and continually fight new cards being opened in my name as this person continued to obtain credit cards under his Sacramento St. address and his phone number, even after I reported that address as fraudulent and supplied copies of the police report and continued to file affidavits that I have lived at my current Berkeley address and have had the same phone number for over 20 years.

    The house at the Sacramento St. address has been foreclosed. I still have a freeze on file with the three credit agencies. And I recently received a legal notice about a data theft settlement with Countrywide/Bank of America. If your identity has also been stolen and you have been a Countrywide/Bank of America customer, you can participate in the lawsuit by filing a claim form available at http://www.CWdataclaims.com. Looks like a crummy deal, given that a Countrywide senior financial adviser stole personal data and sold it to third parties.