Local and federal authorities are jointly looking into a recent spike of cases involving fraudulent use of debit and credit cards in the community.

Houston Police Chief Jim McNiell said his department has received more than 20 reports since the first came in on Nov. 13. The Texas County Sheriff’s Department has received a similar number and has a pile of paperwork to show for it.

“And those are just the ones that have been reported,” McNiell said. “I’m convinced there are a lot more.”

Customers of three Houston banks –– Community Bank, Landmark Bank and Progressive Ozark Bank –– have fallen prey during the outbreak. Unauthorized use of victims’ debit or credit cards range from relatively small amounts in some cases to well over $500 in others. In addition to local law enforcement agencies, the investigation involves the FBI and Secret Service.

“I don’t think it’s anything to do with the banks,” McNiell said, “other than that’s where people who have been victimized have their accounts. I think it’s bigger than that, and our investigation shows that so far.”

McNiell said investigation of the outbreak has involved multiple Houston businesses, but has more or less focused on one. He said that business’ name wouldn’t yet be made public due to the sensitivity of the investigation, but that victims appeared to share the characteristic of using their debit or credit cards there.

“It’s information that has gone through their business that has been somehow stolen or compromised,” McNiell said. “I don’t think it’s being compromised locally, but on a bigger scale through corporate offices and their computer network.”

McNiell said that while most or all cases being reported to the police and sheriff’s departments can be traced to local use of credit and debit cards, resulting fraud has manifested in purchases far and wide.

“There isn’t just one place in the United States where it’s happening,” McNiell said. “We’ve seen purchases made in Georgia, Florida, New Jersey and out in California. Basically, purchases are being made nationally using information obtained here locally.”

McNiell said even the manager of the business being focused on has been victimized in the outbreak. He said banks involved have been gracious in taking care of victims.

“I haven’t heard of any cases where the banks haven’t taken care of their customers,” he said. “But for so long we’ve been a trusting nation of trusting people and we’ve felt like everything is secure and we don’t have any problems. And for so long, we haven’t. But these people apparently have nothing better to do than find ways to steal peoples’ information and have been successful in doing so. 

“Are there any safeguards we can use? I think that the more you can use cash these days, the better off you are. Of course, the easiest way to conduct business is to swipe a card. Unfortunately, customers just have to trust people at that point. Once you use a card –– or even a check –– your information is out there and can be available to be stolen.”

Figuring the outbreak may not subside for a while, McNiell encouraged people not yet victimized to be wary and victims to report their plight to the law.

“The case load at the police department and sheriff’s department has increased significantly because of this,” he said. “But I definitely recommend that if you fall victim, report it to your financial institution, as well as the police if you live within the city or the sheriff’s department if you live outside city limits. Also, if you have the ability to go online and check your debit or checking account, do that regularly to make sure someone isn’t stealing your money.”

McNiell said he isn’t sure how long the investigation might take.

“We’re following leads, but we’re just not able to get far yet,” he said. “Until we, the FBI, the Secret Service and everyone else trying to help us can get a good grasp on this, we all just have to realize someone has found a way to steal this information from people who really haven’t done anything wrong.

“At this point, I think it’s a fair thing to say that a local business’ information has been compromised –– possibly at the corporate level. Beyond that I really don’t know what to say.”

It’s information that has gone through their business that has been somehow stolen or compromised,” McNiell said. “I don’t think it’s being compromised locally, but on a bigger scale through corporate offices and their computer network.”

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