Distraction fraud leaves a trail of victims out thousands of dollars
Ross Mclaughlin and Sandra Hermiston, CTV Vancouver
Published Friday, February 10, 2017 6:00AM PST
Last Updated Friday, February 10, 2017 4:34PM PST
All up and down South Granville Street in Vancouver small business owners are asking themselves, “What just happened?” Over a period of several weeks in January a man using a stolen credit card was able to trick credit card machines into processing several transactions, making off with thousands of dollars in stolen merchandise and cash.
Douglas Reynolds, owner of Douglas Reynolds Gallery is now out thousands of dollars and fighting with his credit card processing company over it.
“We’ve been robbed!” Reynolds exclaimed. And yet he didn’t know it until long after the theft had occurred.
On Jan. 14 a man walked into his gallery with the intent of purchasing a gold bracelet worth about $2,300.
“He was very chatty,” Reynolds said. “He was in the gallery for probably 20 minutes.”
It was the chatty good nature that kept employee Jay Cabulu distracted as he rang up the transaction and handed the credit card processing terminal over to the "customer."
“He was talking the entire time, always had an anecdote, there was never a dead silence,” Cabulu told CTV.
The security camera video shows how the man took the credit card machine and started entering a bunch of numbers while Cabulu searched around for material to wrap the bracelet. The video shows the man even turning his back away from the counter to complete what should have been a quick transaction.
The transaction went through and it wasn’t until much later that they learned the sale and been aborted on the terminal and that the machine had been put into a manual or "force sale" mode to enter a false authorization code to make it go through.
The clerk never noticed "force sale" on the receipt which would have been a red flag.
Several businesses were targeted by the same scheme.
Salman Ansari at Verandah Antiques, Rugs & Décor says the culprit got away with a Cartier watch worth $1,500.
“He circumvented the authorization process and a did a forced sale,” Ansari told CTV News. ” I didn’t catch it at all because I was busy packing that watch for him.”
Over at Heirloom Juice Co. the culprit put an extra $60 as a tip on the transaction. The clerk handling the transaction says he told her that he made a mistake and asked for the money back. She obliged but thought something was off. When Sophie Bacinschi tried to reprint the receipt she realized it hadn’t been processed.
“So I’m like, oh my God he totally scammed me,” Bacinschi said.
Fortunately, the man was still waiting for his burrito and although she says he argued with her she got her manager involved and they got the money back.
However, the same "tipping" ruse used at Bean Around the World didn’t get caught until about $400 had been taken.
Le Creuset was hit too. The folks at Bacci's caught it when they noticed the man was punching in too many numbers in the terminal and called him out on it. He left the store.
All the businesses identified the same man from a security camera picture as the one who had tricked them. They described him as more than six feet tall, about 45 to 50 years old with a scruffy beard and smelling like smoke, as if he’d been around a fire.
Police have been notified about the fraud and CTV reached out to two major companies that set up payment systems to help process the transactions. We are told it’s called "distraction fraud" and that merchants bear some responsibility for keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.
At this point the merchants are out the cash. However, Reynolds wonders how a stolen credit card could have stayed active and used for so long without being cancelled. He says he’s learned that it has been cancelled now.
“It used to be something gets stolen off the wall and somebody runs out the front door was our only sort of measure of theft. It is so easy for somebody to force an illegal sale through the system and not have it get caught.”
This type of fraud has been around for years but has only come to the attention of some Vancouver merchants recently. There was a huge case in New Jersey in 2014 where a woman was convicted of defrauding merchants of more than $500,000.