CARD SHARP: Mathew made purchases worth Rs 15 lakh on stolen card numbersAt first, nothing seemed amiss about the trio. Like a growing number of youngsters of their age, they too were out to have a rollicking time. Branded clothes, flashy girls, discos – life was one long party, money,CARD SHARP: Mathew made purchases worth Rs 15 lakh on stolen card numbersAt first, nothing seemed amiss about the trio. Like a growing number of youngsters of their age, they too were out to have a rollicking time. Branded clothes, flashy girls, discos – life was one long party, money a non-issue. The credit card took care of it all. Until, of course, the Mumbai Police received a tip-off.When the police acted on the information and arrested the three in May – Charanjit Singh Chaddha, 24, Karanjit Singh Sethi, 23, and Gaurav Bakshi, 26 – even the law enforcers had not bargained for what they recovered: 80 credit cards – and all of them fake. The youths, it transpired, were from Delhi and part of an international racket in which hundreds of genuine US credit card holders were skimmed to churn out an assembly line of fake plastic.The mastermind behind the racket was a New York-based Pakistani national called Fahad. Chaddha and his friends were running his backroom operations in Mumbai and had colluded with a grocer and travel agent to fabricate bills to siphon off over Rs 1 crore from bank accounts of 80 card users in the US. Indian banks are also suffering: Citibank Rs 30 lakh, Canara Bank Rs 50 lakh, Bank of Baroda Rs 60 lakh…More recently, the Mumbai Police arrested Ravi Shankar, a 34-year-old unemployed computer engineer who bribed a waiter in a city hotel for credit card numbers of customers. Using two of these, he ordered two music systems, a synthesiser and a mobile phone from durableshop.com, a Chennai-based e-commerce site. His luck ran out when a suspicious courier company alerted the police just as he was to take the delivery of a new laptop.advertisementSimilarly, two months ago the police in Kottayam, Kerala, arrested Arun Mathew, a 30-year-old engineer who swapped pornographic pictures for credit card numbers with a front-desk staffer of a US hotel. For over a year, he used the credit card numbers of US-based customers to import lingerie and sports shoes worth Rs 15 lakh from e-commerce chains before a foreign bank informed the local police.CLEAN SWIPELOST/STOLEN CARDS: The most common cause of card frauds.POSTAL/MAIL INTERCEPT: Card criminal intercepts the new or renewed card issued to cardholder and misuses it.MAIL/TELEPHONE/INTERNET ORDERS: Fraudulent transactions in which a cardholder’s credit card number is quoted by an unauthorized person to make purchases or use services.COUNTERFEIT/DUPLICATE CARDS: Cards with counterfeit card association logos, holograms with valid names, account numbers and encoded data.MULTIPLE IMPRINTS/SALES DRAFTS: An unscrupulous trader generates multiple imprints of your legitimate card submitted for payment in his premises. The subsequent sales slips could be used to put fraudulent charges on your card or are sold to other retailers. While credit card frauds are nothing new, what has shocked the police is the growing audacity and scale of the crimes. Billed as a convenience tool, plastic money is as convenient to pick. The global village’s criminal now finds it easier to swipe your card and key in its pin number than to point a gun in your face and rob you. The bag of tricks appears to be full. They range from the relatively dated method of stealing the card in your mail to more tech-savvy ones like hacking websites to get hold of credit card numbers.”Credit card fraud is the bank robbery of the future,” says DCP Dinesh Bhatt of the Delhi Police’s Economic Offences Wing. According to a study conducted by the Credit Card and Management Consultancy (CCMC), an Udaipur-based firm, card-related frauds are now increasing at an annual rate of 30 per cent in India.The study pegs the average loss per card at Rs 60,000 per annum and for ATM cards at Rs 30,000. It estimates that 2 per cent of the Indian credit card base, or two of every 100 persons owning a credit card, become victims of fraud at one time or the other.Just two months ago, the Delhi Police busted a racket in which the employee of a courier company had intercepted and stolen eight credit cards despatched by the State Bank of India to clients in Madhya Pradesh. The cards were then sold to friends who bought computers, clothes, refrigerators and mobile phones worth Rs 1.25 lakh.In August 2000, Delhi-based businessman Mohanjeet Singh applied for a Citibank ATM card. The card was reportedly sent to him by post from the bank’s headquarters in Chennai but didn’t reach him. It was intercepted and used by criminals who in a series of rapid-fire cash withdrawals from various ATMs sucked Rs 17.5 lakh out of Singh’s account over 10 days. The culprits are yet to be identified, let alone arrested.advertisement”Going by the experience of developed countries, card fraud in India will soon be an industry in itself,” says CCMC’s Chief Consultant Vijay Mehta. “The bigger the bank, the bigger the card base and the more vulnerable are customers.” Card companies, however, are circumspect. They have a clientele of over 50 lakh credit, debit and ATM card users, a figure growing by an impressive 22-25 per cent annually.That is, every year 10 lakh card holders join the legion of plastic users. The growing crime, the industry fears, could act as a major deterrent. “It inhibits card usage by customers who have had a bad experience,” admits Citibank spokesperson Madhulika Gupta.How vulnerable is a credit card holder to fraud? As vulnerable as he lets himself to be. He can count himself in the high-risk group if he leaves his cards lying around, doesn’t bother to scrutinise his monthly statements and freely parts with the card number to anyone asking for it on the phone or the Net.EXPOSED: Chaddha (in red shirt) with six others arrested in MumbaiThat’s one side of it. There’s also porous technology and the lack of legal safeguards to contend with. Most foreign banks claim they have the technology to detect card fraud. Standard Chartered, which has over 10 lakh customers in India, has a system which pinpoints abnormal attempts on a credit card.”We send out an advisory to the customer if we see him buying say 10 shirts or indulging in low-denomination transactions, usually done by card criminals to check the card’s validity,” says Shyam Srinivasan, head of the credit cards division, Standard Chartered.Citibank too boasts of a similar check system. But it is obviously not enough. Neither bank will reveal the losses they suffer from card fraud, preferring to call it “well within globally acceptable norms”.While multinational banks can afford to absorb the hits – at the current levels at least – many Indian public-sector banks have shied from entering the technology and volume-driven card industry. Some fight fraud by maintaining modest user levels and thus bypass the sophisticated technology required to protect huge card bases.Taking note of the growing foul play, however, the Reserve Bank of India recently issued a circular advising all major Indian banks to set up internal control systems and participate in fraud-prevention task forces to formulate stringent laws. At present, whenever a fraud is detected it is registered as a case of cheating under Section 420 of the IPC. But that’s more of a formality. With no fool-proof protection, victims of fraud often find themselves helpless.While their liability to pay up is reduced if the theft of a card is reported in time, there is little they can do in other cases. Rajesh Dalvi, an executive with a Mumbai TV software firm, for instance, wanted to protect himself from fraud. He asked Standard Chartered for a photo credit card.advertisementA bank “representative” came to his house one evening to collect his old credit card and do the needful. Within a week Dalvi was slapped with a bill of Rs 18,000 for shopping he hadn’t done. Dalvi had no option but to pay up. For bitter cardholders like him, credit is a taboo word now. At least till technology and legislation to tackle plastic crime are fully in place.