The waitress at a River Oaks restaurant approached her customers with a secret in her pocket, took their credit card and disappeared for just a minute.
She rang up the meal, swiped the card through the restaurant's computer and returned with the receipt.
Sometime during that everyday transaction, prosecutors say, she used a small battery-powered card scanner to surreptitiously scan the unwitting customer's card.
Able to fit in an identity thief's palm or masquerade as a pen in a shirt pocket, the tiny "skimmer" is emerging as the newest threat to bank accounts.
"It's almost like being pick-pocketed, but you still have your wallet," said Assistant Harris County District Attorney Ed McClees. "It's something that can be done with sleight of hand, without the person even knowing it has been done."
The tiny digital devices can collect and hold information from hundreds of cards then can be easily downloaded and transferred worldwide over Internet black markets.
With the holidays approaching, authorities are warning consumers to stay vigilant by regularly checking their accounts online, keeping receipts from where they shop and watching who handles their card.
Possession not a crime
Authorities estimate that dozens of store clerks and servers are arrested every year in Houston. Authorities are reluctant to quantify how often skimming happens, however, because one waiter at one restaurant can skim hundreds of numbers. There also are cases of identity theft that may have involved skimmers but cannot be traced or were not reported, investigators said.
"What we catch is a fraction of what happens," McClees said.
Possessing a skimmer is not a crime, but having one with stolen numbers is, he said. Attorneys and other legitimate small-business owners may use skimmers every day.
If used illegally, the amount of information in the memory determines the degree of the charge, ranging from misdemeanors to first-degree felonies, which can carry a maximum punishment of life in prison. The River Oaks waitress is awaiting trial on state jail felony charges, which carry a maximum of two years behind bars.
Secret Service special agent Marvin Wright said consumers generally are victimized 24 to 48 hours after the number is "compromised."
"That information can then be encoded on a lost, stolen or counterfeit credit card and used anywhere in the world," Wright said.
In addition to skimmers in the hands of would-be conspirators, they also can be placed on ATMs and gas stations to capture information during a legitimate transaction. The skimmer is set up as a small hood on the real reader so the card is seen by both. A hidden camera records the PIN entry so a fraudulent card can be used at any ATM.
Identity thieves enlist friends, neighbors and other contacts to get more numbers, said John Brewer, chief of the Harris County District Attorney's identity theft section.
In July, four women who ate together at a Houston chain restaurant all discovered fraudulent charges on their bank accounts. When they alerted police, they recalled that their waitress took a long time with their cards.
When police questioned her, the woman cooperated and said she was approached and given a gift card to skim cards at her jobs. She also worked as a cashier at a big box retailer.
Police set up a sting days later in which the woman asked for another skimmer, scanned five cards that had been set up with accounts for fraud investigations and returned it to the identity thief who lived in a Houston motel.
Prosecutors arrested the man for debit card abuse and forgery, accusing him of using the data to create credit cards to buy $100 gift cards.