Crooks grab $45M with prepaid cards

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In movies, the weapon of choice for bank robbers is usually a fearsome-looking firearm, but thieves who emptied $40 million from banks worldwide over a few hours in February had something a little more mundane — a prepaid debit card.

And, that wasn’t the group’s only such attack. In December, it had swiped $5 million.

This month, eight New York men were accused of using counterfeit MasterCard prepaid debit cards created with data stolen from the Oman-based Bank of Muskat by hackers. Crucially, those same hackers also were able to temporarily disable withdrawal limits on the prepaid accounts, allowing accomplices to make unlimited withdrawals for a short window of time, according to the complaint.

And withdraw they did. The eight men reportedly used the cards to make 3,000 ATM withdrawals, totaling $2.4 million from ATMs in the New York area alone. In all, the vast, global fraud ring managed to drain the  $40 million via 36,000 ATM transactions in 24 countries in just 10 hours.

Both of the banks that had been targets of the ring, Bank of Muskat and RAKBANK, which was targeted in the smaller but still substantial attack in December, are outside the U.S. So it seems unlikely that any American prepaid debit card holders were at risk in this particular incident.

While the crime itself was sophisticated, the defendants themselves don’t appear to have been. They may have raised a red flag when they attempted to deposit nearly $150,000 in $20 bills at a bank branch in Miami. The remainder of the money was used to buy Rolex watches, a Mercedes sport utility vehicle and a Porsche Panamera, perhaps with the intent of reselling them to launder the money.

Still, prepaid debit card holders are generally more at risk of losing money to fraudsters than those with credit cards or checking accounts. That’s because prepaid debit cards are not covered by Regulation E, which provides fraud liability protection for conventional debit card holders as long as they report fraud in a reasonable period of time.

While many prepaid debit cards offer some protection from fraud losses, keep an eye on the terms and conditions on such cards to be sure you won’t suffer a disastrous loss in the event an enterprising hacker cracks your account.

What do you think? Do you trust prepaid debit cards when it comes to protecting you from fraud?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell.