CHARLOTTE COUNTY -- The arrest of a young man in a sophisticated credit card fraud operation prompted authorities to issue a warning Wednesday to people who use credit or debit cards in restaurants and bars.
"This is big. This is scary," said Bob Carpenter, public information officer for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office. "Always keep your eye on your credit card."
Authorities say the arrest shows how easy it is for servers to sell information by swiping a credit card through a small, hand-held machine sold online when they take a card out of a customer's sight to charge for food or drinks.
"I'm not attacking waiters and waitresses," Carpenter said. "They are good people."
But it only takes one to rip off numerous customers, he said.
Erik A. Edward, 20, of Sanford, made his way across the state making fraudulent purchases at Wal-Mart and other stores with debit and credit cards made from information he purchased from restaurant and bar servers, according to Carpenter. He was being held in the DeSoto County Jail and faces charges in Charlotte and Clay counties.
Edward was arrested Tuesday after he purchased three laptop computers from the Deep Creek Wal-Mart on Kings Highway using a counterfeit card, officials say. He was stopped in DeSoto.
A search of the car he was driving turned up 10 computers, 8 camcorders, 2 cell phones, 18 Wal-Mart gift cards and 4 credit cards, according to a sheriff's press release.
The credit cards were in Edward's name, but the magnetic stripe contained the victims' account information, deputies reported.
Officers said they also found a notebook that kept a monthly log from November 2006 of dates, amounts of fraudulent purchases and a printout of maps and addresses of Wal-Mart stores from Tampa to Naples, according to the news release. Edward also had receipts from Wal-Mart stores in Arcadia and Wauchula.
Also found in his possession was a laptop computer equipped with a credit card scanner used to make fake cards.
Authorities say thieves will recruit a store clerk or waiter, offering to pay a certain amount for each extra swipe of a credit card in a small device known as a skimmer.
A skimmer, which can hold data from hundreds of cards, pulls the account information, which is downloaded into a computer to allow a thief to make a counterfeit card.
The thief then has access to all the data from the victim's card and calls the bank or goes online to see how much is in the account or determine how much can be charged to the account. The thief can go to one store to purchase items, then go to another to return them.
Authorities said such operations are spreading.
Stacey Payne, crime prevention manager in the Lee County Sheriff's Office, said she encourages residents to get to know their waiters and waitresses and ask for the same person.
Payne said she also advises people to use a credit card instead of a debit card because it is messier to dispute a debit card.
"It's definitely a crime that's not going away," Payne said. "If anything, it's one that is on the increase because it's so easy to do."
Dave Bristow, the Manatee County sheriff's public information officer, said he himself has been a victim of the crime but at a store. He said he did not notice when a cashier made an extra swipe of his card.
He said the Manatee Sheriff's Office receives reports of such crimes more often than it can make arrests because the perpetrators stay on the move.
"It's something that can obviously happen to anyone," Bristow said.
Carpenter suggests that customers follow servers to the cash register in order to keep an eye on credit or debit cards.
He said customers can politely tell servers that they don't suspect anyone in particular but the increase in credit card fraud makes it essential to keep an eye on the transaction.