The Toronto Star
Friday, February 26, 1999

Bank-card case a whodunit

Illustrates customers may end up paying in event of fraud

by Dana Flavelle

Missing Money: Heather Marchegiano says $2,000 was stolen from her bank account even though her bank card was never lost or stolen and never used by family without her consent.
Heather Marchegiano says someone stole $2,000 out of her bank account and she's the one being made to feel a bit like a criminal.

The 43-year-old west Toronto woman says she doesn't know exactly how it happened, but someone got into her account through a bank machine and left her $2,000 overdrawn.

Now, she says her bank says she has to make up the shortfall.

"They're being really terrible to me. I'm a good customer, a long-time customer", Marchegiano said in an interview.

Marchegiano, who works in retail carpet sales, is convinced she's a victim of crime even though she can't explain how the thieves got into her account. Her bank card has never been lost or stolen, and she believes no one in her family used it without her consent.

She says the Royal Bank of Canada has investigated her complaint and told her it's been unable to prove she was defrauded. So, it's become a case of her word against her bank's.

A bank spokesperson said yesterday the investigation is being re-opened as a result of The Star's inquiries.

"In this particular case, there are a couple of extra steps we can take", bank spokesperson Lucy Caron said. "I can't give you an answer today. I'm still trying to track down some additional information. One of the people isn't in the office today."

Marchegiano's complaint illustrates a growing problem for bank customers. Though debit-card fraud is relatively new, it's on the rise and it's hard to prove. When fraud is in dispute, who should foot the bill?

The banks have historically taken the position that customers are responsible for any debit-card losses, since no one could steal both your debit card and your personal identification number unless you've been careless with them.

"The bank told me it always turns out that it's somebody in your family", Marchegiano said.

But new techniques allow thieves to duplicate your card without your knowledge and steal your PIN simply by having hidden cameras focused on the PIN keypad.

Though her bank knows the exact times and locations where the alleged fraudulent activity occurred, it has been unable to determine who conducted the transactions.

There were no video cameras pointed at any of those bank machines.

The alleged thief used four different bank machines to obtain statements on her account, deposit phony cheques and then withdraw the money, Marchegiano said.

The machines were all located in Scarborough. Marchegiano lives in the west end of Toronto and works in Concord, north of the city.

"I've never been to any of those machines."

When she reported the incident to police, Marchegiano said she told them she thought something suspicious happened at a gas station a few weeks earlier.

She said she handed her debit card to the gas station attendant so he could swipe it through the machine. When she went to punch in her PIN, she noticed the PIN pad couldn't be moved.

"After I put in my security code, I glanced over my right shoulder and thought, `That guy sitting over there just watched everything I did.'"

Police said the incident she described sounded a lot like "skimming".

The card is swiped twice, first through the retailer's machine, then a second time through a phony card reader that records all the information on the magnetic stripe. The information is used to duplicate the card.

Hidden cameras or another person watch the customer punch in their PIN.

But the bank ruled the gas station out after checking its records and discovering there had been no other complaints about it.

The suspicious transactions on Marchegiano's account occurred on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25. But Marchegiano said she didn't discover the loss until late Jan. 29, when she updated her bank book and discovered she was overdrawn.

She thought the bank had made an error and went to her branch at Dufferin and Stayner Monday morning to report it. That's when she learned someone had made three phony deposits to her account and then withdrawn some of the money a week earlier.

"Why didn't they look into it when my account went into overdraft? You think they would have called me the minute they opened those empty envelopes", she said.

Meanwhile, Marchegiano said her account is still frozen, which means several cheques and other pre-authorized debits to cover her bills have all bounced.

Copyright © 1999 by The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.