CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Credit and debit card thefts are on the rise, according to Marine Corps officials, who say using common sense is the best way to avoid becoming a victim.

Most thefts occur when individuals leave their personal identification numbers in their wallets or purses, or give their card and PIN to a friend to withdraw money for them, said Barry Blanset, an investigator with the Marine Corps’ Criminal Investigation Division on Okinawa.

Blanset said the most common credit card theft cases he sees involve persons who take friends’ cards, using them by employing the PIN the owners had supplied sometime in the past.

“It could be weeks, or months down the road … I’ve seen it go as far as a year that the friend has put that PIN number in the back of their mind and remembered it,” Blanset said.

Last year, CID investigated 19 credit or debit card thefts, officials said. That number will almost double this year if the current trend continues: The first four months of 2004 have produced 11 cases.

In other instances, thieves can get personal data by “shoulder surfing, skimming and spoofing,” said Marine Capt. Bernard Hess, Camp S.D. Butler Provost Marshal’ s Office operations officer.

He said a thief “shoulder surfs” when he or she looks over your shoulder as you enter your PIN at an automatic teller machine, or installs a fake ATM device that reads your card’s encoded data. In “skimming,” a thief swipes a victim’s card at a restaurant or gas station, using an electronic device that records the personal information from the magnetic stripe. The crook then can use the information to make fraudulent credit cards.

In “spoofing,” Hess said, a bogus Web site is made to look legitimate and would-be consumers are asked to enter a large amount of personal information, which later can be used to obtain credit or make purchases.

Protecting yourself from any of these instances is simple, Hess said.

“Memorize your PIN,” he said. “Do not carry your PIN in your wallet.”

Hess added that if a credit or debit card is lost or stolen, the victim first should contact creditors, then the police.

“The faster the reporting, the better the chance for credit card companies and the police to prevent any more charges and apprehend the thief,” Hess said.

Other tips he offered include never leaving your wallet or purse unattended, keeping credit card receipt slips to compare with statements and never signing a blank receipt.

To help remember what’s in a purse or wallet, Hess recommends making photocopies of all cards and documents for each company that must be notified if they’re stolen.

Hess also stressed that thieves don’t need the card itself to steal. Something as simple as a piece of paper can give a thief full access to a credit card.

“Never leave you credit card, receipts, billing statements or any document that has your complete card number lying around,” Hess said. “Also, never release you account number, expiration date, or personal information over the phone without verifying the caller’s identity. Offer to call back — legitimate companies won’t mind.”

Blanset said people should think of credit cards like cash.

“Some people don’t understand that credit cards are just as good as money,” he said. “You should treat a credit card like it’s a $100 bill.”

Blanset said he’s seen some cases in which an individual will charge up the card, then claim it was stolen or lost to get out of paying the charges.

What that person fails to realize, he said, is that store surveillance cameras often film customers while they’re making the purchases.

With credit and debit card thefts on the rise, CID officials pledged to combat the rise in credit and debit card thefts in part by investigating thoroughly and prosecuting vigorously each incident coming to their attention.

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