Fact Check

Camera Cell Phone Identity Theft

Are thieves using camera cell phones to capture credit card information?

Published Jan. 20, 2004


Claim:   Thieves are using camera cell phones to capture credit card information.


Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2004]

Keep a watch out for people standing near you at retail stores, restaurants, grocery stores, etc., that have a cell phone in hand. With the new camera cell phones, they can take a picture of your credit card, which gives them your name, number, and expiration date. Identification theft is one of the fastest growing scams today, and this is just another example of the means that are being used. So... be aware of your surroundings.


Variations:   Some October 2004 versions are prefaced "CBS reported this type of identification theft is one of the fastest growing scams today." (If CBS had run a piece on cell phone cameras used by thieves to capture credit card numbers, it has escaped our notice. More likely, this claim was added by someone looking to infuse the mailing with a greater sense of credibility.)

Origins:   Camera phones, the latest in cell phone wizardry, allow users to take pictures on the go and transmit these images by e-mail or post them to the Web. With video phone in hand, unexpected sightings of celebrities can be snared with a flick of the wrist (turning the celled into the snaparazzi), as can chance encounters with pretty girls or gorgeous sunsets. Though introduced in the USA only in 2002, camera phones have already helped solve crimes and aided in the capture of criminals when quick-thinking phone owners had the wit to turn their units on their attackers.


Cell phone camera

are fast growing in popularity. Yet they also have a dark side, one that ultimately might be their undoing.

Most who purchase such instruments have only the most innocuous of pleasures in mind — they want to be able to take and transmit pictures of places they're visiting and people they're meeting. Or they want to have something handy with which to snap photos if something hilarious plays out in front of them. However, at least some who are equipping themselves with this latest in technology are doing so for nefarious purposes.

Camera phones have been banned in many public areas like swimming pools and locker rooms in the U.K. and Japan after police discovered pedophiles were using the technology to add to their child porn collections. In Japan, police have apprehended people using camera phones to take photos up the skirts of unsuspecting women in crowded trains and stores. In the U.S., some state legislatures have before them bills that would serve to ban cell phone cameras in venues where folks have an expectation of privacy, such as locker rooms and restrooms. Even without this legislation, a number of American health clubs and courthouses have barred their use on their premises.

Yet the danger posed by these instruments may not end with embarrassing or lewd photos of the unsuspecting — quite possibly such phones may be used to harvest credit card data. Information in other forms has already been purloined via camera phone, with newsstand owners in Japan complaining folks armed with such gadgets have been photographing magazine articles instead of buying the issues, thereby cutting into their business. In January 2003,

a Web-based fashion magazine used video phones to beam photos from Paris fashion shows, producing almost-live coverage of the catwalks and scooping the competition. Pictures were sent directly to the Web.

We first saw the warning against camera cell phone enabled identify thieves in January 2004. Although we've yet to stumble across reports of actual incidents of theft of credit card information by this method, the warning implicit to the e-mail is valid — the ill-intentioned could indeed photograph the face of your credit card with such devices.

At this time, most of the units on the market don't take very good pictures, possibly not nearly high enough quality to capture what is, after all, fairly small raised print on fairly small items. Video phone pictures aren't high-resolution, and most camera phones can't autofocus, lack onboard flash, and rely on long exposures — all limitations that conspire to make them unsuitable for data mining over someone's shoulder. However, what they (at this time) lack in clarity of image, they make up for in distance their captures can be transmitted. Unlike the cameras found secreted at ATMs, which could send their images to receivers no farther than about 200 meters away, video phones can relay what they see to the other side of the world. They are, after all, telephones.

Although at this time the phones' limitations might appear to rule out the risk of your VISA or Mastercard details being harvested by camera phone-wielding thieves, the danger should not be discounted. The more expensive of these instruments take better photos, meaning they could pick off minute detail that lesser phones couldn't, so every video phone should not be judged safe to flash your plastic to. Moreover, the technology is improving, which makes it a good bet the next generation of camera phones will transmit sharper, clearer images.

In February 2005, a retail fraud investigator for one of the larger chain stores told us that while he is still unable to capture a useable image of a credit card from even the newer camera phones, he has been able to grab readable images of all account and routing info from the personal checks customers have produced at the checkout. Check writers, he says, have a tendency to "lay out" their check books on the writing counter at the registers and keep them stationary enough to obtain a clear image of all the personal information printed on the check. He has also tested this theory with camera-equipped palm tops and has found that with the adjustable resolution he has been able to get a pretty clear picture, with zoom, from a reasonable distance away (3-5 feet). So at this point in time, while your credit card might still be secure, your personal check might not be.

As for camera phones themselves, whatever their limitations or potential for misuse, unless legislated out of existence, they are likely to become the next "must have" item. We do so love our toys, after all.

Barbara "surfeit USA" Mikkelson

Additional information:

    Preventing Credit Card Fraud   Preventing Credit Card Fraud   (Consumer @ction)

Last updated:   22 July 2011


    Amodio, Joseph.   "'Hello' and 'Cheese'; That Cell Phone May Be Photographing You."

    Newsday.   13 January 2004   (p. B3).

    Bradley, Kim.   "Camera Phones Bug Cop; Fears It'll Be Used By Perverts."

    The Toronto Sun.   26 December 2003   (p. 128).

    Hanluain, Daithi.   "Forget F-Stops: These Cameras Have Area Codes."

    The New York Times.   3 July 2003   (p. G1).

    Ihnatko, Andy.   "Camera Phones an Idea Whose Time Shouldn't Have Come."

    Chicago Sun-Times.   2 December 2003   (p. 64).

    The Associated Press.   "Bill Would Ban Cell Phone Cameras from Locker Rooms."

    10 January 2004.

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