A Roll of Toilet Paper, a Security Camera and a Harlem Bodega Lead to One FCLC Student’s Identity Theft Ordeal


Published: September 23, 2010

This fall, ‘discovery’ is the defining word for many students, and whether you’re a freshman or a senior, there’s always something new to explore. We’re discovering new ideas, new people, new places and for some, a whole new way of life; unfortunately, not all discoveries are pleasant ones.

Independent ATMs such as this one are particularly susceptible to identity theft scams; it is safer to use banks’ ATMs to withdraw cash. (Mario Weddell/The Observer)

Last week, I discovered something much worse than an overdue term paper or an empty fridge full of my roommates’ fingerprints. Staring at me from my computer screen was my Wachovia checking account with a string of strange charges on my debit card. The charges amounted to a horrifying $237.68, which included multiple TWX Magazine subscriptions, a Best Buy purchase and four charges from Petsmart. No, this was not a consequence of some forgotten late night escapade but of something far more serious: identity theft.

When you have student loans, text books, tuition, MetroCard fare, rent and groceries to pay for, you can’t afford to lose a dollar to some lousy stranger. Needless to say, when I saw those charges, I flipped.

After refreshing my online bank account balance about 900 times, I realized that the balance error probably wasn’t going to be magically rectified. I began to ask myself those all important questions;

How could this have happened? How can I fix it? And, how can I prevent this from happening again?

Well, the answer to number one is pretty comical, simple and stupid on my part: it has to do with toilet paper, bodegas, ATMs and Harlem. As I walked down 135th Street and Broadway, only two blocks from my apartment, with a pleasant breeze from the Hudson River combing the streets, I made my way around the neighborhood running errands.

Groceries, check; laundry, check. All that was left to do was pick up a few things from the bodega at the end of my block. In the vibrant, organized chaos of the crowed aisles of this local store I discovered two things: one, that this was a cash-only establishment and two, that I had no cash on me.

Fortunately, I also discovered a third thing, an ATM in a strangely well-lit corner of the generally dim-lit store. “Lucky me,” I thought to myself, “there’s an ATM right here.” Little did I know it was a sticker-covered ATM, an instrument of identity thieves—oh yeah, lucky me.

There are three main ways that thieves can use ATMs to get all of your important personal information. The first is known as “card skimming.” Here, skimmers will place “card cleaners” near the ATM, which are actually devices, used to capture your card information. The second method is the “fake ATM.” It is exactly what it sounds like—a fake ATM that will capture your PIN and card number when you want to take out cash, then while you’re waiting for your money to be dispensed, the ATM will conveniently be out of order.

However, the most common and simplest way to be scammed by an ATM is the most difficult to catch. “Viewing” is where a normal ATM is placed in a well-lit area where a camera is closely observing the machine, and the scammers zoom in on the footage hoping to get a clear view of your debit card number and your PIN. You leave the ATM with your cash, pay for your toilet paper, wrap it up in a bag and have no idea that you’ve just given crucial information to thieves. It was this last method that got me. “Thank you, come again?” I think not.

Fortunately, it just so happened that I decided to check my bank account that day. Many college students go weeks before checking their balances and thus can be ignorant of any unauthorized transactions; therefore, some good advice from someone who’s been there is to always keep track of your balance. I mean, if I never checked my balance that day, it would have been much more difficult to convince my bank that I did not buy five bags of crickets and a rabbit leash.

After discovering the unauthorized purchases, I called my bank and reported the fraudulent transactions. In order to guarantee that you’ll get your money back, you need to report the transactions the moment you see them; they should still be on hold, or you may have to pay for the thieves’ expenses.

Next, make sure to ask for a new card and a new debit card number. You’ll have to live without a card for a week, but trust me, it’s worth it. And if you have no cash on you, most banks can usually assign you a temporary debit card for withdrawing cash only. The bank will also call your identity theft experience a “case,” and when your new debit card comes in the mail, you will fill out paperwork, which will be given to an investigator who will hopefully discover the thieves.

While this experience hasn’t stopped me from shopping at my local stores or using my debit card; from now on I’ll definitely pay more attention to where I swipe my card because I don’t want to end up buying another $237.68 roll of toilet paper.


We all know what identity theft is: someone using our personal information without permission to commit fraud or any illegal activity. The thing that students don’t know about identity theft is that we are not immune to it. A recent study conducted by the Impulse Research for Chubb Group Insurance Companies discovered some unsettling statistics. In 2009, 11 million people were victims of identity theft, many of them students. According to a recent study, the average college student lost $1,100 a year to identity theft; that’s five times the average of any other age group.

Here are some tips to avoid identity theft:

  1. Use your bank’s ATM and try to avoid individual ones in stores and in the street. I mean, I love living in Harlem, but it may not be the greatest place to withdraw money from a sketchy ATM.
  2. Cover the keypad while you enter your PIN.
  3. Try to use the same ATM so you can notice any strange changes. Wow, a new card cleaner!
  4. Don’t let anyone else enter your PIN.
  5. Carry emergency cash on you so you won’t be placed in a situation where you have to use an independent ATM.
  6. Most importantly, be smart and use common sense.