16 April 2023

The Digital Detective, Banco and Bunco, Part 1

One upon a time I was scammed, or rather American Express was. In my consulting days, a pair of cancelled flights kept me hostage at Chicago Airport for ten hours, which covered a couple of mealtimes. For one of those, I plunked down in their sit-down restaurant and partook. And was partaken without my knowledge.

The end-of-month credit card statement showed a charge that could have fed a family of twelve instead of not-so-little ol’ me. AmEx explained this was called a ‘waiter’s charge,’ literally so in my case. A waiter hands you a bill in a black leather folder. The diner casually tucks a credit card in the folder and the waiter carries it away. At this juncture, the fraud happens.

If the restaurant keeps a computerized tally, the waiter adds on an additional lobster and a hell of a tip. Without an ongoing account, a waiter simply adds in a dollar figure. In olden days, waiters might run two or three blank slips through the imprinter for later use. These days thanks to skimming devices, a waiter can mint a new card before you leave the premises.

Once a card is out-of-sight, waiters can do anything they wish.

As did a waitress a waitress in Minneapolis’ beloved Pannekoeken Huis. Two things had come together to draw my attention to a minor racket. Unlike my girlfriend whose sharp eye for cash register fiddles caught one in the middle of a famous theme park, I don’t have specialized training in these things. However, a conversation with a vice president of finance at the company I consulted for raised my awareness. After meals, he carefully perused the bill and credit card slip, commenting he’d find mistakes nearly half the time and went on to prove it.

Bad Taste

And so I found myself in the very restaurant where he’d enlightened me. Frankly, the waitress did little to avert attention to herself. In a Midwestern city where everyone is friendly, she was unusually hostile. Perhaps it was the result of a bad morning, but she acted distinctly sour. Thus when the check came and bearing in mind the VP’s admonition, I looked over the register’s paper tape and there it was… or in this case wasn’t. The line items didn’t match the inflated total.

Her scam took but a moment to unravel. The register tape provided the clue– the restaurant’s logo was missing at the top of the tape. She’d rung in a false item, rolled the register’s tape forward several inches and tore it off, and then rang in the real breakfast tab.

I brought it to the attention of the front-of-house manager. That trusting soul cheerfully waved off the discrepancy as a register glitch. Fine, not my problem, but the practiced moves of the waitress announced she’d done this many times. I did not encourage her by leaving a tip.

That wasn’t why he glanced at your derrière

Does your credit card have a tap ’n’ go icon? If so, it has a built-in bit of electronics called passive NFC… near field communications, a cousin of RFID. Your cell phone may have something similar, but is active NFC because it’s battery powered. They work on the same principal as store exit scanners that sense security tags still attached to the jacket you just bought.

Besides the likelihood of your butt mashing your phone, NFC is a major reason you shouldn’t carry your phone in your hip pocket. A passerby brushes her phone past your pocket and *snap* — she’s captured your information.


Scams can happen other ways. You check out of your doctor’s office, or you pay at the window of that overpriced restaurant, or you’re enqueued at Wendy’s drive-thru window and your fuel gauge is running low as is the patience of the guy behind you who taps his horn for the third time but it’s not your fault because your salad isn’t ready and finally the server comes to the window and hands you a bag with a freckled girl’s face on it and says, “That will be $36.80,” and you realize for that kind of money you could have dined at Pannekoeken Huis with money left over but you dig through your purse and there’s your MasterCard that you hand over and a second later he hands it back followed by a receipt that you stuff in your purse and before the guy behind you can blast his horn again you pull forward and out of his way, yet when you get home you receive a text message that your credit card has hit its limit. What? How can that be? You should have at least fifty dollars to spare.

And there it is: Instead of $36.80, you were charged $96.80. Maybe the guy’s finger slipped ringing it up. But wait, there’s another $23 charge from the same place at the same time. That shouldn’t be possible. What happened?

When you handed over your card, you lost sight of it for an instant only. But it was enough time for the window guy to pass the card over a pocket skimmer or even a second NFC machine, a modern analogue of imprinting an extra credit card slip.

Contactless Cards (NFC, RFID)
Universal Contactless Cards (NFC, RFID)

ATM : Access Thy Money

You may seen recent warnings about ATMs with inoperable card slots, glued shut according to articles. Nearby, a helpful guy who’s standing a respectable, unobtrusive distance behind you offers a suggestion. “You can tap your card.”

But of course you can. You thank the guy, boink the card over the symbol, stuff $200 in your purse, and nervously flee the scene to safety. Or so you think. The helpful guy, he moves in and empties your account.

When an ATM’s mechanical reader returns your card, it automatically logs you out of the system. Likewise in store transactions, once the clerk rings you out and you see the Thank You message on the screen, you’re once again disconnected from your account.

Surveys show at ATMs, tap ’n’ go customers often don’t manually log out of their accounts. Without a mechanism holding their card and releasing it as they sign out, clients fail to realize the connection to their account remains active and vulnerable. Please, log out.

Next Week: Money Laundering


  1. I'm a very old-fashioned girl: I don't tap my credit card; I don't use ATMs; I often pay cash; and I have one credit card that is exclusively for on-line purchases (from old established retailers, if you know what I mean), and one that's exclusively for groceries and gas in my city. And I have a 3rd, tucked away, that's exclusively for out of town travel, which we don't do much of any more. So far, I haven't been taken. Still, you never know...

    1. Eve, good for you. You are practicing exactly what Frank Abagnale (now a consultant) recommends. His reasoning isn't that credit cards can't be a tool of fraud, but that it's easier to get your money back if it's stolen or misused.

  2. Great Advice, Leigh! I learned something today, and I'm actually a former bank manager who was schooled in fraud (oops - that sounds like something that could be taken another way depending on your politics...grin)

    1. Ah ha! Melodie. That explains a lot in your novels. Thank you, I appreciate it.

  3. Keep them coming. Most of us have been hit by nefarious waiters at one time or another.

    1. RT, I keep thinking about the Minnesota waitress, wondering how long she's gotten away with her little scheme. I can't believe I'm the only one who noticed, but few of us redo the math from a machine-printed itemized receipt. Thanks, RT.

  4. Elizabeth Dearborn16 April, 2023 16:54

    I never realized until now that I could pay by tapping my card & don't think I want to do that.

    1. Hi Elizabeth! As long as your card or your smartphone has one of the symbols above, your payment method has the capability of 'contactless' payment. But yes, I also prefer to feed my card to the machine and get it back at the end.

  5. You make me nostalgic for cash transactions!

    1. On such a little chip, Anon, so much hangs in the balance.


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