Credit Card Theft Isn’t Just An Online Problem

A story from today’s Washington Post reminds us that online shopping isn’t the only place where you’re credit card number is in danger of being pilfered:

Three servers at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue in the District allegedly stole credit card numbers from patrons as part of a scheme that racked up more than $117,000 in fraudulent charges between 2008 and last year, authorities say.

Investigators with the U.S. Secret Service allege the servers were working for a larger fraud ring and were using electronic devices to “skim” the credit card numbers of customers they served at the restaurant. The devices were handed off to others, and the stolen numbers were used to make fake credit cards and later used to buy gift cards and merchandise in the Washington area, according to court records in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Federal officials became aware of the scheme in April of last year, when Citibank investigators reported numerous fraudulent charges on cards that had been used at the Cheesecake Factory at 5345 Wisconsin Ave. in Friendship Heights, just south of the Maryland line. Because servers at the restaurant have to swipe a server card unique to them before processing a credit card, investigators were able to narrow the transactions to three servers, according to court documents.

Secret Service agents interviewed two servers, identified in court documents only by their initials because they are cooperating with the investigation, who said they were recruited by Nicole L. Ward, another server at the restaurant. Ward allegedly provided the servers with “skimmers” to capture the credit card numbers and would then hand off the devices to two men, known only as “Slim” and “G.”

Stories like this always come to mind whenever I run into people who, even in today’s era of digital encryption, still think online shopping is a security risk. Do they have any idea how much of a risk they take every time they hand their Visa to the 22 year-old waitress at Chili’s ?

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    Someone made a counterfeit of my card, years and years ago. They shopped fast for one hour, and then never used the card again. My CC company finally covered it, but they made me go through some cycles of “credit approved” and “credit denied” before doing so.

    Don’t keep too much in card-connected or atm-connected accounts.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I’ve only had one fraudulent credit card charge since going online 17 years or so ago, and it was almost certainly from a local store/restaurant employee theft. I’ve also had one erroneous double-entry by a caterer that I think was honestly inadvertent.

    That said, I still think it’s safer to use a credit card than routinely carry around cash. Just keep records and check the credit card statements.

  3. just me says:

    I have never actually had a fraudulent credit card charge, but know people who have had them or worse their identities stolen.

    I have been told the most unsecure time for your credit card is when it leaves your sight at a restaurant. I think in a digital age, credit cards and debit cards are a must, and the reality is there isn’t a way to make them 100% secure. The best thing to do is review statements and save reciepts.

  4. Dustin says:

    I’ve told people for years that it’s amazing how much we fear systems that are pretty secure, and don’t think a second about how readily we give the info to people in the flesh. Think about the pizza delivery person who comes to your door. They way most delivery companies do it, s/he ends up having your address, phone number, and credit card number, and you just trust that they’re not going to run off with it because you gave them a $1 tip.