Oxford police, working along with the Secret Service and law enforcement officials in Georgia, apprehended three suspects at the Golden Corral at the Oxford Exchange on suspicion of possession of counterfeit credit and gift cards.
In total, the suspects were carrying more than 400 counterfeit cards, which Oxford police said is one of the biggest hauls of its kind in the state of Alabama. But what might have been more unusual was the type of counterfeit cards the suspects were carrying — gift cards.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a recent trend, but we see it as a natural progression of things,” said Roy Sexton, the special agent in charge of the Birmingham field office of the Secret Service, who worked with Oxford police to track information on the cards. “We see it pop up from time to time, it’s becoming more usual.”
Sexton said he couldn’t speculate on the reason gift cards would be targeted over credit or debit cards, but said in general, it doesn’t make a difference in the difficulty of tracking stolen information. Typically, thieves who steal information are able to electronically place credit card numbers on any type of debit, credit or gift cards.
The problem can become more complicated when thieves are using real gift cards purchased with stolen information, according to Oxford police Lt. L.G. Owens.
Most gift cards once were purchased in advance for use at specific retailers. A relatively new type of gift card, however, is virtually indistinguishable from a credit or debit card, and can be used pretty much anywhere those forms of payment are accepted. Because the cards are often only used temporarily, and the information on them not always linked to personal bank accounts, the cards are harder to track, Owens said.
Oftentimes, a credit card thief will immediately purchase gift cards from a retail store, essentially transferring the money — and the trace — to the gift cards, Owens said.
A consumer who reports his credit card information as stolen will have to go through the headache of reporting the theft to the credit card company, Owens said, and after a successful investigation will usually receive a refund, typically at the expense of the retailer.
And as hard as it is to track stolen credit card information, tracing retail gift cards is even more challenging, he said.
“The officer working in the field has no idea those cards were purchased with stolen credit cards,” Owens said.
It’s a problem Owens said he’s seen more and more in Oxford, a retail-heavy city with a major interstate running through it connecting Atlanta and Birmingham. But it isn’t just Oxford that’s being targeted. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Alabama ranked 12th in the nation for identity theft in 2011, with more than 82 complaints per every 100,000 residents.
It’s one of the reasons, Owens said, laws in recent years have come down much harder on credit card thieves in an attempt to crack down on the widespread problem.
In 2006, legislation in Alabama made all types of identity theft, including stealing credit card information, class C felonies.
Owens said in the case of the three suspects arrested last week, the number of cards likely led to an easy tracking of the information.
“Eventually the numbers do catch up with you,” he said. “A lot of those stolen numbers had been compromised and flagged.”
As for the number of victims, Owens said he has no idea how many people were targeted by the suspects caught at the Exchange, but said it’s safe to assume it’ll likely be multiple over several jurisdictions. It’s possible the Secret Service will prosecute the crime as a federal case.
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.