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International fraud hits Seattle neighborhood

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Federal law enforcement investigators say they're closing in on an international thief who electronically ripped off hundreds of residents in a Seattle neighborhood.   

Most live on Seattle's Capitol Hill.  On October 25th, Topher Jerome says he got a text message telling him his bank account was overdrawn.  That raised a red flag because he knew he had plenty of money in it.

Someone had gotten hold of his debit card number and was using it to make purchases all over the world, including at a nightclub in Cameroon.

Jerome thought “oh great I’ve been hit with identity threat” and posted something to that effect on his Facebook page. What he heard back surprised him.

“Three people commented and said me too, me too, me too!" he discovered shortly after he posted his comment.

 It was happening to so many people on Capitol Hill that the Seattle police turned it over to the Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force. 

What they’ve figured out is that on a single day in October an overseas hacker tapped into a neighborhood establishment’s computer system and accessed hundreds, maybe thousands of customer credit and debit card numbers. 

Now, Secret Service spokesman Bob Kierstad says they’ve tracked the crime to an overseas country (he won’t say which one) and are close to identifying the hacker.  It could take several months, but the person will likely be brought to Seattle for prosecution.

"We will work within channels, proper channels to apprehend the person through Interpol or Europol,” Kierstad said.

 The Secret Service says they're also investigating a similar case in another community “somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.”

The lesson of all of this for consumers is to by hypervigilant, check the charges on your bank and credit cards often and, if something happens, report it to both your bank the police. It’s likely if you’re the victim of fraud, you’re not alone.

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.