Caught in the act by tech

Last Tuesday, a day before the whole Philippines went on a national hiatus to observe Lent in this pre-dominantly Catholic country, I accompanied two IT journalist friends to the Makati City Hall to witness the "inquest" proceedings of five suspects who were caught using somebody else's credit card.What's the big deal in this petty crime caper?

Last Tuesday, a day before the whole Philippines went on a national hiatus to observe Lent in this pre-dominantly Catholic country, I accompanied two IT journalist friends to the Makati City Hall to witness the "inquest" proceedings of five suspects who were caught using somebody else's credit card.

What's the big deal in this petty crime caper? Well, there are two things that got us interested in the story: first, the victim in the credit card fraud was Mel Dominguez, a PR executive whom we know very well, and second, the incident involved some tech component.

But perhaps, the most important element in the story is that it was the first time that an actual illegal credit card transaction was monitored and busted in real time. In the past, a crime of this nature would have been reported only after the transaction had already been completed. Under local banking rules, a credit card user is answerable to all transactions charged to his or her account before a card is reported stolen.

Dominguez, thus, was lucky to have the 50,000 pesos (US$1,250) charged to her account voided because the suspects were apprehended on the spot. They racked up the amount on a shopping spree-–accumulated in just an hour--purchasing goods from premium brands such as Lacoste, Havaianas and Nike in a mall in Makati City. One of the culprits used a fake identification card with a forged signature of Dominguez.

What's also interesting is that the alleged mastermind behind the crime wwas the cashier of the karaoke outlet where Dominguez left her card. (I was part of the group of IT journalists who joined the karaoke event that night to welcome regional executives of storage vendor EMC, which is a client of Dominguez's PR firm.) The PR executive was unaware that the lady cashier did not return her credit card after she presented it to make payment.

It was only after two weeks--and this is where the IT part comes in--when Citibank called Dominguez one afternoon to confirm if she was indeed making the purchases in successive fashion. It turned out that the bank had installed a new system that automatically sends text messages or prompts a monitoring agent, when it detects high-value withdrawals or transactions.

At that time, the suspects were monitored to have made a transaction in a shoe shop. Coordinating with the bank, Dominguez then alerted the mall's security personnel who then quickly pounced on the shocked suspects.

The karaoke cashier was not among those who were collared, but it was later revealed that she provided the lost card to her cohorts. How did the police uncover that? One of the suspects deposited the looted merchandise in a supermarket counter and gave the baggage tag to the cashier. The tag was found in the possession of the cashier while she was on duty at the karaoke joint.

That's real-life CSI for you.

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