Locals started to report more credit and debit-card fraud this month, complaining that their accounts were charged for goods they didn't buy, from New York to California, according to police.
One Athens man reported Wednesday that account information from two of his credit cards was used to make purchases totaling more than $22,000 in Georgia and South Carolina, according to police.
An Athens investigator thinks a hacker might have broken into the financial information of one or more retailers.
"This is the crime of the 21st century," Athens-Clarke police Detective Beverly Russell said Friday. "Why go into a bank with a gun and risk serving 30 years in prison when you can hack into a database and possibly never get caught?"
Area detectives are working with the U.S. Secret Service to get to the bottom of the rash of fraud.
Police don't believe the thefts are connected to the largest security breach to date, involving TJX Companies Inc., the parent company of T.J. Maxx, Marshall's and other stores. Someone hacked into the company's database in June 2005, reportedly exposing at least 94 million Visa and MasterCard accounts to potential fraud.
One credit card company official warned that thieves will sell data from the compromised cards, and fraud reports will continue.
"You know, these are going to be sold off for a period of time in the future, so it's going to continue for some time out there," Joseph Majka, Visa USA's vice president of investigations and fraud management said in court documents.
Many of the credit and debit-fraud reports recently lodged with Athens-Clarke police involve customers who maintain accounts with two locally based banks, First American Bank & Trust and First Athens Bank and Trust Co.
First American immediately canceled about 5 percent of its customers' debit and credit cards when executives learned accounts might have been compromised by the TJX security breach, according to the bank's CEO, Robert Heath.
"We decided to take the safe route," Mr. Heath said.
That leads Mr. Heath to think that thieves are using "skimmers" - electronic devices placed over an ATM's card reader to steal account information - or hacking into the databases of companies that handle transactions between retailers and customers' banks.