This is the third in a series of articles focusing on how the Redlands (California) Police Department is using GPS trackers to enhance the department's community policing efforts and promote police legitimacy.
Our world is quickly transitioning into a cashless society. Using credit and debit cards, one can buy groceries at the supermarket, purchase gas at the local service center, withdraw large amounts of money from ATMs, and make an endless number of purchases over the Internet without ever having to show identification. Unfortunately, this type of system has flaws that benefit those who are intent on living a criminal lifestyle. Virtually everybody knows somebody that has been a victim of identity theft, credit card fraud, or forgery. We have all experienced the anticipation (or the dread) of reviewing a credit card bill hoping to discover that no unauthorized charges have taken place. If we do happen to learn that our credit card has been compromised, we know we are destined to spend countless hours on the phone trying to remedy the situation. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that suspects are using credit card skimming devices to steal personal account information at point-of-sale locations and ATMs.
Being able to pay for services using a credit or debit card at point-of-sale devices such as gas stations is a great convenience. However, when you swipe your card at the pump or withdraw money from an ATM, you may actually be handing over all of the information needed for a suspect to drain your bank account or run up a large credit card bill. Credit card skimming devices, about the size of a small thumb drive, can easily be attached to a gas pump that accepts ATM and credit cards. Thieves can simply purchase these devices over the Internet. They can then gain access to the internal mechanisms of a gas pump using a universal key that is also available for purchase over the Internet. Most of the new devices have Bluetooth capability and can transmit the credit card data wirelessly to a laptop computer. The suspect simply drives up and downloads the data without even accessing the device. In the time it takes him or her to walk in and purchase a soda, the suspect can download all of the account information from the skimming device. Armed with the information, he or she can then generate fraudulent credit cards that can be used to make purchases. By the time the victim realizes their account information has been violated, the thieves have made numerous purchases that can amount to thousands of dollars.
Business owners have begun to implement preventive measures that will assist them in determining if their point-of-sale machines have been compromised. The simple step of affixing a seal to each gas pump access door allows clerks to quickly check and make sure the gas pump has not been opened. This was the case at a local convenience store in Redlands, California.
During an early-morning inspection of the gas pumps, the store clerk at a popular convenience store saw that the seal to pump number 12, which is located furthest from the front door of the business, was broken. He notified the store owner, who conducted a closer inspection. Once the access door was opened, the owner quickly recognized the credit card skimming device that was attached to the pump and immediately notified local authorities.
When police received a call notifying them of the skimming device attached to the gas pump, it was not the first notice of such activity taking place that day. Police had already received a phone call from another gas station complaining about the same type of activity. Since there was no way to tell for sure when the suspects would return to retrieve the skimming device, and faced with fiscal constraints that prevented deployment of an officer to stake out the gas pump, police resorted to a strategy that they have been utilizing to address crime trends in the community for the last three and a half years. After disabling the credit card skimmer by removing the battery, authorities discreetly affixed a motion-activated GPS tracking device to the credit card skimming device. They then shut the door, left the pump as they found it, and let technology do the work.
The next morning at 5 a.m., an alarm sounded on a computer screen in the Redlands Police Department Communications Center. The dispatcher immediately accessed a secure website that displays a detailed map of the gas station location. The dispatcher quickly determined that the GPS tracking device authorities had attached to the credit card skimming device was now traveling westbound on Lugonia Avenue at a speed of 50.2 MPH. Within seconds, the dispatcher broadcasted the tracker activation to patrol units and gave updates every six seconds as to its direction and speed of travel. The responding patrol units were quickly able to determine which vehicle the skimming device was traveling in using the tracking data information supplied by the dispatcher. Police were able to stop the vehicle, and although the driver and passenger would not consent to a search of the vehicle, the police were able to determine the GPS tracking device was indeed inside the vehicle using a handheld radio frequency beacon that pinpoints the exact location of the active device. Once police obtained lawful access to the vehicle, they located several skimming devices along with other pieces of evidence that implicated the two subjects in an organized theft ring. Both subjects were arrested and now face a variety of charges.
In this case, with the assistance of GPS technology, authorities were able to disrupt a sophisticated identity theft ring and hold the two suspects accountable for their actions. With 139 arrests as a result of using GPS tracking technology, the Redlands Police Department has discovered a new way to hold those responsible for stealing credit card information and committing crime accountable. Maybe next time, those suspects will think twice before returning to Redlands to conduct their criminal activity.
Lt Travis Martinez is the Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant of the Redlands Police Department and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special Operations Bureau Lieutenant
Redlands Police Department