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Are Phone Cameras being used to Steal Credit Card Information?

Email warns recipients that criminals are stealing credit card information from unwary consumers by photographing credit cards with mobile (cell) phone cameras (Full commentary below).

Unauthenticated but possibly true.

Example:(Submitted via email, 2004)
Keep a watch out for people standing near you at retail stores, restaurants, grocery stores, etc., that have a cell phone in hand. With camera cell phones, they can take a picture of your credit card, which gives them your name, number, and expiration date. Identification theft is one of the fastest growing scams today, and this is just another example of the means that are being used. So... be aware of your surroundings. PASS THIS ON!!!!!!!!

There has been a lot of Internet discussion about the security risks posed by mobile (cell) phone cameras. Emails, forum posts and website articles warn of the danger. Others question how real the danger actually is.

One such email warning is reproduced above. The information may be true, but I am not sure how big a security risk this would actually pose. I would have thought that the person using the phone would have to stand very close to you in order to take a legible picture of your credit card. As an experiment, I tried taking a photo of my own card in a mock shopping situation with my digital camera. There is no way that I could read the numbers on the card from a photo snapped while the card was sitting on the "counter" waiting to be scanned nor over the shoulder of a person holding the card, even when using the zoom function. My camera is by no means top of the range, but it certainly has better resolution than your average mobile (cell) phone camera.

Of course, I could take a clear picture of the card, but I'm not sure how I could do this without the owner of the card being aware of it. I would have to get the camera quite close to the card, to get a clear picture.

However, I am not dismissing this out of hand, as it might be possible to distract the card owner enough to snap a quick close up shot. Also, mobile (cell) phone technology is changing rapidly. The newest wave of phones might have the necessary resolution to easily take card shots that could be deciphered later.

Right now however, I would not consider phone cameras a major threat when it comes to stealing credit card information. I haven not read about any actual victims of the scam and a lot of the warnings and reports seem to be anecdotal. Some police departments and other organizations have issued warnings about this scam, but it is unclear if the warnings are a result of the Internet rumour or reflect real events. In any case, none of the warnings or articles I have read on the subject offer verifiable details about specific incidents of the crime occurring.

Mind you, "be aware of your surroundings" is actually quite good advice when it comes to your personal security. And it would be certainly a good idea to watch out for people acting suspiciously with mobile (cell) phones. Mobile phone cameras have been used to take indecent photographs, sometimes of children. With the advent of any new technology, there will be those who are willing and able to abuse it for their own ends.

Write-up by Brett M. Christensen