Sarah Klise was in King Park last Thursday watching her child play when she casually mentioned to a friend that someone had tried to illegally use her credit card that morning to buy an Apple computer.

The person Klise was talking to turned around, somewhat incredulous. Her credit card had been compromised as well. Before long other people wandered over with their own stories of credit card fraud and quickly determined that thieves had illegally used the cards of at least five families they knew.

In the last few months there has been a spike in the number of cases of credit card fraud and identity theft in Berkeley, according to Det. Cesar Melero of the fraud division of the Berkeley police department.  While he could not provide firm numbers of how many people had been affected, he did say that Bank of America sent out letters to 700 Berkeley customers in late March telling them that their cards may have been compromised. At one 50-person publishing company in Berkeley, at least eight people have had someone make illegal charges on their cards, according to an email sent to Berkeleyside.

And I got a call last Wednesday telling me that someone had just charged $2,000 to my card at a Wal-Mart in Nebraska.

“The more people you talk to, the more snowballing seems to happen,” said Klise.

Of course, this is an international issue, not a Berkeley issue. Credit card thieves have grown increasingly sophisticated in recent years, said Det. Melero. Now thieves often embed malware in the computer system of a company and steal hundreds of credit card numbers at a time.  Or they insert a skimmer that reads your card number in an ATM machine or gas station kiosk.

“There is no way to protect yourself from something like this unless you stop using credit cards,” said Det. Melero.

In a recent press release, the police department had these recommendations:

Fraud Prevention Tips:

  • Regularly check your bank statements and credit card bills and look for fraudulent charges.
  • If you shop over the internet, use reputable retailers.
  • Do not give personal information to anyone over the telephone or internet unless you know who you are talking to.

If You Become a Victim of Fraud:

  • Report the issue to your bank/credit card company.
  • When you talk to your bank/or credit card company, keep a detailed log of who you talk to and what was discussed.
  • Make a police report in the city or town where you reside.

Det. Malero said Berkeley police became aware of a spike in credit card thefts a few months ago when a number of Cal students noticed that they still had their credit cards in their wallets, but someone was using a duplicate card elsewhere in the country. Police determined that one business was the probable location of the scam. He declined to name the business but said it had replaced all its computer software.

Det. Malero has also been working with businesses around Berkeley to get them to assess the security of their credit card operations and help businesses make them more secure.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...