Police Blotter

The FBI Warns Retailers About Thieves Armed With Foil


Retailers, the FBI has a message for you: Watch out for fraudsters armed with aluminum foil climbing on your roofs.

The agency says thieves have used a convoluted scheme to steal electronics and cigarettes from gas stations and other stores in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvannia, and West Virginia.

Here’s how the theft goes down. First, someone climbs onto the roof of a store and uses aluminum foil to block the satellite antenna that the store uses to receive data from credit card companies to authorize sales—a gadget called a feed horn that looks like this.

With the signal blocked, stores can’t validate credit and debit card transactions. That opens the door, so to speak, for bandits to enter the store, load up their carts with electronics or cigarettes, and pay with stolen credit cards. Retailers often permit sales even if the link with the credit card company is down, figuring the transactions will go through once the connection is back up.

The thieves and their ill-gotten goods are long gone by the time a store realizes its satellite receiver has been wrapped up like a plate of leftover meatloaf. When the sales are finally sent to the processor, they’re denied because the card was stolen, leaving the store on the hook for the losses.

When contacted on Friday, FBI spokeswoman Whitney Malkin said no one was available to answer questions about the scheme.

The agency has blamed “African criminal enterprises” for the crimes. The stolen loot is “taken to New York, where it may be sold at pawn shops or exported to Africa,” the FBI’s Mollie Halpern explains in this podcast (yes, podcast) about the scam.

Two people were arrested in West Virginia in October trying to pull off the scheme, according to an FBI document (pdf) posted on the website of the Dewitt County (Ill.) Sheriff’s office. The pair was linked to more than 600 stolen cards and had more than $10,000 worth of cigarettes and electronics in one of their vehicles, according to the document.

Retailers might consider installing extra physical security measures, such as closed circuit TVs, to keep thieves away from their antennas. Another way to foil the foil fraudsters: Climb onto the roof and physically inspect satellite antennas before approving big-ticket sales.

John_tozzi
Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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