Police suspect Malaysian hackers behind ATM scams

Victims of international ATM skimming gangs like Anupol Puwapulpol have no idea how they can guard against the criminals who steal their money, because the thieves always seem to be one step ahead of the police.

Police are  tracking a Malaysian gang believed behind the latest theft of money from people using bank ATMs  in Bangkok after evidence showed that their money had been withdrawn from ATMS in the southern provinces.

The cash withdrawal from the account of Anupol Puwapulpol, one of the 12 victims, was made by someone using a counterfeit ATM card in Songkhla. Other victims had their money siphoned from ATMs in Surat Thani, Pol Col Sathit Prom-uthai, of the Economic Crime Division, said.

In total, 700,000 baht was stolen from their bank accounts.

All live and work in Bangkok and suspect that an ATM owned by Thai Military Bank (TMB) installed at CP Tower 3 in Ratchathewi district of Bangkok was the machine targeted by the thieves. They filed complaints with Phaya Thai police on Tuesday.

There are two groups of hackers operating in Thailand, Pol Col Sathit said. One group is based in eastern Europe and former Soviet Union countries, and the other is based in Malaysia.

“European gangs use Thailand as a base to withdraw money after skimming the ATM cards of Europeans, but they also hack Thais too, as in this case,” Pol Col Sathit said on an RS television programme on Thursday.

He referred to another case on Nov 7, when a skimming device attached to a Bangkok Bank ATM machine in front of the Apollo building on Witthayu Road in Bangkok’s downtown Pathumwan district stole card users’ information. The criminals used the information to withdraw over 1.3 million baht from the accounts of 78 people who had used the ATM machine. The withdrawals were traced to the Ukraine.

The withdrawals exposed last Tuesday were by a Malaysian gang, and they normally are ethnic Chinese, Pol Col Sathit said.

“We are investigating by starting from the place where the money was withdrawn,” he added.

Pol Col Sathit advised ATM users to regularly change the PIN they use for withdrawals, to safeguard their card and their money and avoid suddenly learning it has all disappeared.

Mr Anupol, an executive of an advertising agency, said that he and 12 colleagues had used the same ATM machine, and money was stolen from their accounts. The last time he used the ATM was on Nov 1.

However, there is no solid evidence that information was skimmed from all 13 cards, Pol Lt Col Theerasak Sriprasert, deputy chief of Phaya Thai police station, said.

Mr Anupol said he was unaware of the scam until he went to a machine to update his passbook on Tuesday.

“I updated the passbook on that day. The machine was printing several transactions but I didn’t realise something was wrong. I thought the long list was because I don’t update it that often,” he told the TV programme.

“I was shocked after it was finished. My money was gone,” he said.

Mr Anupol can withdraw up to 200,000 baht at a time from his ATM card, and he lost 400,000 baht in total.

”They were very smart,” he said.

“They withdrew 200,000 baht in several transactions within two minutes before midnight, and another 200,000 one minute after midnight,” he added. That was between the last minutes of Monday and first few minutes of Tuesday.

His co-workers also saw their money siphoned off, from ”tens of thousands of baht to 600 baht”, according to Mr Anupol.

Hackers often hide a very small camera over the keypad of the ATM machine to record the PIN and install a slim skimmer on the keyboard to record the account information, which is later copied to a fake card used to steal the money.

Mr Anupol suggested ATM users withdraw money from a machine inside a building instead of outside, where it could be more easily tampered with, and regularly update their passbooks.

“The best way is to go the traditional way, by walking in to the bank to do transactions,” he said.

“The problem is hackers never stop here. They are high-tech guys,” he said. ”We never know what’ll come next.”

TMB said all money siphoned from customers’ accounts had been refunded after the victims presented the bank with copies of complaints they filed with police.

Onticha Rattanawannathip, senior vice president on strategic communications at TMB, told the Bangkok Post the bank is checking other accounts and alerting owners if they discover suspicious transactions.

“We suggested they to go to the bank and get a new ATM card,” Ms Onticha said.

TMB, like other banks, also has a service to alert customers by SMS of suspicious money transactions made by an ATM card issued to them.

“That is one way to alert you,” victim Anupol said.

“But who would be aware if the money is flying out of your account in the middle of the night, as happened to me?” he said.