Tracey Harrington is a regular at Colonial Car Wash, and she usually pays with cash.
But she was short on cash March 2 and went ahead with the car wash, paying with a credit card. It was a split-second decision she regrets.
“The only time I didn’t have enough cash, they got me,” the 49-year-old Rotterdam woman said Friday.
“They” are credit card scammers, and Harrington is one of their many victims. Rotterdam police have received about 100 reports from people who used a credit or debit card at the Altamont Avenue car wash only to have their cards used in places they hadn’t been lately, like New York City, France and Italy.
Police say there could be many more people affected by the scam who did not report their situation to police, instead going straight to their banks.
Harrington falls into that category. She left work at CSEA in Latham to go to Capital Communications Federal Credit Union and get a new card after learning Monday her credit card had been used twice in Brooklyn on Saturday and once in Florida on Sunday. She’d spent the weekend in Rotterdam, so she knew she’d been scammed.
“Oh, I was a basket case, definitely a basket case,” she said. “I left work early to go straight to the bank to stop it.”
The money taken from her account disappeared in the form of gas station purchases, which were relatively small but increasing: first $24.50, then $25, then $36 and change, she said. Credit union workers told her the scammers “were fishing to see how far they could go.”
Rotterdam police have advised car wash customers to report suspicious activity on their statements to their banking institutions and to the Police Department at 630-0911.
The breach is also affecting customers at other area Colonial Car Wash locations, Rotterdam police Lt. Michael Brown said Friday. After sending out a news release Sunday alerting people to the credit and debit card scam, the department received calls from people saying their cards had been compromised after using them at the Colonial locations on State Street in Schenectady and Western Avenue in Guilderland, Brown said. Police advised those residents to contact the respective police departments for those locations.
Brown said the department is working with the U.S. Secret Service on the investigation, which began when bank managers from M&T Bank, First Niagara Bank and Price Chopper Federal Credit Union contacted the department with reports of customers being scammed after using cards at the car wash in early March.
“The Secret Service does anything with credit card fraud,” he said. “We contacted them because we were aware of similar breaches of car washes up and down the East Coast.”
He said the owner of Colonial Car Wash, David Fusco, who could not be reached for comment, is not considered a suspect. Police believe the credit card information is stolen and then sold to criminals, who embed the information on fake cards.
“We believe that the computer systems of the car wash were hacked into,” he said.
Brown said he doesn’t know if the car wash’s computer system has been fixed since the breach, but said the owner has an information technology company working on correcting the problem. He said he has been telling people who have concerns about being scammed again to use cash.
“As far as them protecting themselves so they’re not being scammed again, the only real way to do that would be to use cash,” he said.
Harrington said she will take that advice the next time she goes to Colonial.
“I will go back, but I will make sure I have enough cash in my purse before I pull in,” she said.
Lisa Duncan, a credit card fraud analyst, said consumers, in general, should be monitoring their bank accounts daily, if not twice or three times a day. Don’t wait for a monthly statement to check for suspicious activity, she said. She noted that most institutions have home banking websites.
“It’s really hard for a consumer to know when they’re going to a merchant that their system has been hacked into, so I think the best thing is to keep an eye on your account on a daily basis,” said Duncan, who works for Covera Solutions, an affiliate of the New York Credit Union Association that works with credit unions across the Northeast.
Concerned consumers can also sign up for email or text alerts that tell them when transactions over a certain dollar amount are made, if so many transactions are processed or if a balance gets below a certain level, she said.
“This way, you have up-to-date information about your account all the time, and that’s probably the best thing that consumers can do these days, because you’re never going to know when a system has been hacked into,” she said.
Harrington, who expects to get the about $90 she lost back through her credit union, said she checks her account daily, and that allowed her to notice the thefts before they added up.
Her advice to fellow card users? No amount of money that goes missing from your bank account is too small not to take action.
“Most people don’t even look twice at a $25 charge, but that’s how they’re getting people,” she said.