Police are warning people about a very real scam that seems like it came straight out of a bad spy movie. Every so often, Seattle-area thieves are sticking false fronts and tiny...

Share story

Police are warning people about a very real scam that seems like it came straight out of a bad spy movie. Every so often, Seattle-area thieves are sticking false fronts and tiny cameras on ATMs to steal financial information.

The scam is not common, though, and the local Secret Service says it has not fully investigated any cases. No one needs to start storing cash under their mattresses, authorities said.

“It should be stressed that this is not an everyday occurrence,” said Wallace Shields, the special agent in charge of the Northwest division of the U.S. Secret Service. “When this happens, it’s a pretty unique circumstance.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Bellevue police say they’ve received several reports of false fronts over the past two years, and referred the cases to the Secret Service. Most people don’t realize they are victims of the scam because it’s difficult to tell how thieves obtained their account information, said Bellevue police spokesman Michael Chiu.

The crime started overseas, spread to New York and has grown in the Seattle area over the past three years, Shields said. It takes on several variations, but generally a fake card slot or reader covers the real card slot and logs the card’s account information. A tiny camera records the ATM’s keypad and sends the keystrokes to a nearby computer or stores the information on a microchip for future reference.

The best defense is to be aware of the ATMs you use, police say. Know the ATM’s regular appearance or check for signs of tampering, such as visible wires or a card slot that sticks out prominently from the face of the machine.

Many tampered ATMs won’t return cards, and thieves swoop in later to retrieve the cards using special equipment. If your card is stuck in the machine, contact the bank and don’t leave the scene until you get your card back, police say.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com