It's a middle England commuter town where the chief topic of conversation is usually the weather or train delays. But now the Hertfordshire town of Letchworth, north of London, is coping with an explosion of identity theft, the victim of gangs of fraudsters who target one community, siphon as much money as possible out of bank accounts then move, locust-like, to neighboring areas.
The impact on individuals who have seen their bank accounts cleaned out is devastating. And now evidence is emerging of how whole communities are losing faith in bank cards and chip-and-PIN technology -- and are turning back to cash-only transactions.
When I spoke to consumers on the streets of Letchworth, I found large numbers of people boycotting outdoor cash machines, and, in some cases, abandoning the use of bank cards in stores.
Shoppers at the Shell gas station said they will never use their bank cards to pay for fuel again, after witnessing the chaos experienced by friends who have had bank accounts plundered by fraudsters. Outdoor ATMs are strangely quiet, while inside banks there are lines of customers taking out cash.
Letchworth has a population of 33,000, but virtually everyone we spoke to in the town center last week said they had either been the victim of bank card fraud, or they knew of someone who has had money illegally taken from their bank account. Usually the illegal withdrawals take place in Australia.
Several residents said they no longer trusted the security measures to protect their money and were now only using cash. Almost all said they would no longer use cash machines unless they were inside the bank.
It's hardly surprising. Last month, the town that, until now, has been best known as the first garden city, suffered a sustained attack from card-cloning gangs.
Card-reading equipment at the Shell gasoline station, on the main road in and out of the town, was compromised. A cash machine -- believed to be at the local branch of Barclays Bank -- also had a skimming device fitted.
The local paper was filled with tales of woe. They resumed with a vengeance last week, when it emerged the problem had spread to another Shell station in nearby Hitchin.
Hilary Gibson defaulted on her mortgage because thieves stole the ?700 (US$1,380) she had deposited to cover the payment the following day. Leisa Virgo from Hitchin was another victim. When the bank called to check a payment, she immediately canceled the card -- but not before ?300 had been withdrawn.
Just weeks after the original attack, when residents thought things were returning to normal, the local Hertfordshire police reported that CCTV monitoring had foiled another attempt to install a skimming device at another cash machine. Four people were arrested.
"I have stopped using bank cards," says Peter Merrigan, who has lived in the town with his wife for more than 40 years. "I now prefer to go into the bank and get out my money the old-fashioned way. I certainly wouldn't use a cash machine."
His wife, Pamela, does have a card, but took the same view.
Derek and Yvonne Black were the next to pass. Derek said he has abandoned bank cards and carries enough cash to buy everything he needs.
"Bank cards aren't worth the hassle," Yvonne said. "Our neighbor spent ?40 at our local DIY store -- the next thing she is phoned by her bank asking whether she had bought goods at stores all over London. It took ages to get it sorted out."
While a few brave souls were taking money out from outside cashpoints, almost everyone we approached in the town said they no longer trusted cash machines unless they were inside a branch.
"I will use the outdoor ones, but only in an emergency now," said one woman who rushed off after spotting a parking warden bearing down on her car.
Simon Harvey, who lives in the town but works at a university in Norway, has had both his credit and debit card cloned by thieves in recent weeks.
"I had suspected it was something to do with the Shell petrol station but hadn't had any proof," he said.
"It's funny, my parents have long said that an over-reliance on bank cards was fraught with danger but, until now, I haven't worried. Having become a victim, I'm starting to think that maybe they have a point," he added.
One woman, who declined to give her name, said: "The banks are going to have to sort this problem out. I'm fed up with queuing to get out my money, but after what happened, I'm not prepared to risk the cashpoint out in the street. It may sound mad, but I know so many people who've lost money."
The ATM outside the Barclays bank branch had wires hanging out and had clearly been attacked.
"Don't worry, it still works fine," we were told by staff in the branch.
A spokeswoman for the UK banking payments body, APACS, said bank card losses abroad leapt 126 percent in the first half of this year, compared with the same period of last year. More than ?220 million will be stolen from UK cards outside the UK this year alone.
"Sadly, the recent events in Letchworth are not uncommon, and no worse than many other similar attacks that have occurred in towns across the UK," she said.
"However, it's worth noting that everyone affected will be reimbursed by the bank. The chances of having your bank cards skimmed are still very rare -- it is much safer than carrying around large amounts of cash," the spokeswoman said.
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