Insidious ATM fraud. Manila airport alleged extortion scheme

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the January 2016 issue.
La tour Eiffel in Paris, France. Photo: ©dermot68/

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 479th issue of your monthly foreign travel magazine.


Twelve days after 224 people were killed on a Russian passenger jet downed over Egypt on Oct. 31, 43 were killed in suicide bombings in a neighborhood in Lebanon, and the very next day the same terrorist group attacked in Paris, killing 130 people who were simply enjoying a Friday evening out. These were tragic crimes, and the grieving continues.

Paris’ being one of the most-visited cities in the world, many of us are familiar with its streets, and, though we cannot know the depths of sorrow that families of the victims are feeling, we did feel the loss of a world treasure having been pillaged.

Despite their pain, the French have only strengthened their resolve to — with a new degree of caution and vigilance — maintain their ways of life, embodied in the national motto: Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Liberty, equality, fraternity).

Believing in freedom of thought as well as tolerance are concepts that certainly are shared by travelers of all nationalities, and taking these ideas with you wherever you go can only contribute to healing the ills of this world, even though there will always be torment and suffering.

Paris remains special not just for its visual and sensory wonders but for the ways its people think and live. Take a tip from the City of Light: wherever you are, whether in Asia, Latin America or your hometown, appreciate the people and things around you. There is beauty to be found in every culture, one encounter at a time.


I don’t mean to drag a phonograph needle across the record, but I’m going to talk about the group that was responsible for the above-mentioned killings.

This militant Islamic group currently controls large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, and groups allied with it are active in Libya, Egypt and Nigeria. The group also has taken credit for lone-wolf-style attacks in Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia as well as in other countries. In June 2014 it declared itself a “worldwide caliphate,” or a state that dictates secular and Islamic laws for all Muslims. 

In the past three years, the group has been referred to as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), a term often used by the news network CNN; ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), used by the US Department of State as well as the Qatar-based news agency Al Jazeera, and Islamic State, or IS, used by the BBC, Reuters and the Associated Press.

Many nations, the US included, are hesitant to label the group as a state or nation or to say that it is representative of the Islam religion. Muslim countries, especially, are loathe to use any term that would validate the group as a caliphate. Therefore, usage of “Islamic State” is problematic.

More and more, the term being used to refer to the group is “Daesh,” which is a near-acronym based on the group’s Arabic name and is how the group is commonly referred to by authorities in Middle Eastern countries.

President Obama and many members of his administration most often refer to the group as ISIL, but Secretary of State Kerry and military officials, at the recent request of Persian Gulf allies, have begun using the term Daesh.

ITN will be using the terms ISIL and, due to its growing usage, Daesh.

And, yes, the group does not deserve to have this much attention given to it, but, to help avoid confusion in future reports, I felt this needed to be explained.


Following the recent attacks, a number of people had questions about their ability to file trip-cancellation insurance claims after a terrorism event. We requested information from ITN Contributing Editor Wayne Wirtanen, who occasionally writes the column “Eye On Travel Insurance,” and he wrote the following:

“To collect on such a claim, your policy must have a terrorism clause (most do), the US Department of State must have named the event as an act of terrorism, and you must have purchased the policy prior to the event. 

“Many policies state that a claim will be considered if a terrorism incident occurs in a city listed on the itinerary of your trip (including stopover cities) within 30 days of your scheduled departure date.

“A traveler could consider purchasing a ‘Cancel For Any Reason’ policy. The downsides are it will cost more than a standard policy and it would reimburse only 75% of the trip cost.

“Someone who can answer further questions is Dan Drennen of Travel Insurance Center (Omaha, NE; call 866/979-6753, ext. 3621, or 402/343-3621 or email dan@travelinsurance”


So what else in the news might be of interest to travelers? 

How about some old-fashioned but new-fangled fraud?

Cyber-security investigator Brian Krebs discovered in June 2015 a disturbing new kind of automatic teller machine fraud involving wireless Bluetooth transmitters. In this particular case, he found 19 ATMs in Cancun, Mexico, that each contained one of these transmitters, but there is no reason to believe that ATMs in other countries are not, or could not become, hosts for the crime.

“Skimming,” or stealing ATM card and credit card info without physically stealing the card, is a worldwide problem. 

In the US, people have been taught to be on the lookout for unusual-looking card readers (with a wire or foreign object sticking out of the card slot, for instance) or odd accessories attached to or near ATMs that may have been put there to hide cameras, which criminals can use to learn patrons’ personal identification numbers (PINs). Even a brochure holder overlooking an ATM can be suspect. Banks purposely keep these areas clear of such accessories.

However, in the type of skimming that Mr. Krebs discovered, there is no way for even the most alert person to know that an ATM has been compromised.

The skimming can begin with an ATM technician, who services and repairs ATMs, being bribed to install fraudulent hardware inside an ATM. The hardware — which is only the size of a postage stamp — will store patrons’ PIN and card information (such as the card number and expiration date).

The person doing the skimming, using nothing more than a smartphone, can then connect to the hardware using a Bluetooth receiver and download the stored information (of up to 32,000 ATM, debit and credit cards and their PINs). This tactic also works against chip-and-PIN cards because both the card information and the PIN are being stolen.

Only a person who can open the ATM and know what to look for or a person who knows how to recognize the Bluetooth signal could ever detect a compromised ATM.

So how can you avoid being a victim? Krebs recommends using only ATMs at banks, where staff can observe technicians as they service the machines. Private ATMs installed in other businesses may be more likely to be compromised because the technicians may be independent contractors with less incentive to properly maintain the machines and therefore may be more likely to accept bribes. 

The independent ATMs that Krebs identified as containing Bluetooth devices were located in hotels and the airport.

To help protect yourself against this type of bank card and credit card fraud, before leaving the country you should call the phone numbers on the backs of your cards and tell the customer service reps which country or countries you will be visiting and the dates you will be there. 

Also, find out the international or foreign phone numbers that you will need to call to report that your credit card or bank card has been stolen, as US-based numbers may not work overseas.

Further, after you return home, check your monthly card statements for fraudulent purchases. The hardware involved in this type of fraud can hold card information indefinitely, so the thief may not even retrieve it until months later. 

Checking your statements is incredibly important, as, according to the Federal Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA), the amount of money you are liable for in the event of a stolen ATM or debit card depends on when you report it stolen.

If you report your card stolen within two business days of discovering a fraudulent transaction, EFTA says you are liable for only $50 in losses. However, wait just one more business day and you are liable for up to $500 in losses for up to 60 days from when you first received the bank statement with the fraudulent charges on it. After 60 days, you are on the hook for the entire amount taken from your bank accounts, and you have no recourse. (Check with your bank or credit card company to learn what its policy is.)

Fraud due to credit card skimming is covered under the credit card company’s fraud response policy.

I thank Ed Graper of Goleta, California, for bringing the above  potential problem to our attention. (No, he was not a victim.)


Ed also alerted us to an apparent scam being perpetrated at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) in Manila, Philippines. Again, he was not a victim but emailed ITN a link to an article on the subject.

According to the article, as airport security agents x-rayed passengers’ carry-on bags, they occasionally detected bullets, then demanded that the travelers pay “fines” or face arrest. The travelers claimed that the bullets were planted in their luggage.

In the Philippines, it is illegal to possess ammunition without a license, so anyone found to be carrying bullets in their luggage can be imprisoned. 

On Sept. 17, a .22-caliber bullet was found in the carry-on of a 20-year-old American visiting the Philippines as a missionary. Accused, he chose arrest over paying the fine.

Also in September, an American woman in a wheelchair decided she preferred to pay the requested PHP500 fine (at the time, about $11) after two .22-caliber bullets were “discovered” in a pocket of her baggage.

The arrested American, on the other hand, spent six days in the airport’s lockup before posting PHP40,000 ($880) in bail.

From later news reports, ITN learned that, with an unlikely number of such incidents piling up and the subsequent accusations against MNL security officials regarding a possible extortion scheme, the Filipino government got involved in late October, calling for an in-depth investigation.

The apparent scam, known locally as “laglag-bala,” has targeted both foreigners and Filipinos. From January through November 2015, at least 30 incidents of bullets being discovered in carry-on baggage at MNL were reported (including one with a 65-year-old Filipino grandmother on Nov. 1).

Officials increased surveillance of the security area in the airport, and some of the accused personnel were investigated, but, as of press time, there had been no arrests.

In an effort to thwart any attempts to plant bullets, entrepreneurial locals are offering a bag-wrapping service at the airport entrance. For about $3, they will wrap a carry-on bag tightly in plastic wrap so that nothing can be put in or taken out of it. 

It’s not clear how effective this tactic is, however, as it is unknown at what point the bullets are allegedly being planted.


An update and CORRECTIONS to note —

• Catching up on her issues of ITN after a 3-month trip, Kathy Wilhelm of Cary, North Carolina, caught an error in the August 2015 crossword. The clue of 40-Across was “Fair Helen’s homeland,” and the answer given was “Troy,” but, as Kathy wrote, “Helen of Troy’s homeland was not Troy. She was abducted from Mycenaean Sparta and taken to Troy by Paris, and the Trojan war was fought to reclaim her.”

• Ted Mullett of Vero Beach, Florida, wrote, “My wife and I took a repositioning cruise from Rome to Ft. Lauderdale on the Celebrity Silhouette, Oct. 31-Nov. 15. During our short stay in Rome, we sought out a restaurant, Elettra, recommended in the article “Hitting the Highlights in Italy” (Aug. ’15, pg. 44). However, we discovered that it had closed several months earlier.

“By the way, the ship permitted me to give a talk on serving as a volunteer English teacher with Global Volunteers (St. Paul, MN; 800/487-1074, I included a suggestion that travelers consider ITN.” 

Ted sent us the names and addresses of eight travelers interested in receiving sample copies of ITN. They each will be sent a free copy of the next-printed issue, something we will do for anyone anywhere.

• Patricia Ove of Aurora, Colorado, wrote, “In the otherwise good article “Exploring the Back Roads and Charming Wine Villages of Southern France” (Dec. ’15, pg. 6), the writer stated that the town of Beynac was besieged during the Hundred Years War by Richard the Lion Heart. Beynac was, indeed, seized by Richard but in 1197. The Hundred Years War was a bit later, 1337 to 1453.”

• My own mother caught an error in the December 2015 issue. In the Travel Brief item “Holy Relic in France” on page 4, it states, “Purported to be the seamless garment that Jesus Christ wore on the cross, the Holy Tunic of Argenteuil will be displayed at the Basilica Saint-Denys d’Argenteuil (in Argenteuil, France), March 25-April 10, 2016….”

Mom pointed out, “Jesus was hung on the cross naked. Soldiers took his clothes and split them up, also gambling for his seamless tunic, before crucifying him.”

Sorry, Mom. I should have paid more attention in Bible study.


The world continues to spin, and we want to know all of the places you landed last year. That’s right, it’s time for our unofficial “Where were you last year?” poll.

If you are an ITN subscriber, write up a list of all of the nations you visited outside of your own country anytime in 2015 and email it to or address it to Where Were You in 2015?, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Remember to include your mailing address (where you receive ITN).

It’s helpful for our editorial staff to know where our subscribers are traveling (in last year’s poll, France came in as the country visited second-most often by ITN subscribers), and the results are valuable in wooing potential advertisers to ITN, which will help keep this magazine coming to you in the mail each month.

The deadline for entry is March 31, 2016, at which point we’ll have a random drawing for a number of prizes. We’ll announce the results — and the winners — in the June 2016 issue. This year’s deadline is sooner than usual, so send in your nations list early. Write by email, postcard, pigeon or whatever.


Speaking of postcards, back before email was the norm, we used to distribute “ITN Report Cards,” which subscribers would fill out while traveling and mail back from overseas.

In late November, the postman delivered one of these trip reports from Jack Smith of Lake Forest, California. Jack wrote about the Pension Acronafplia at 31 Agelos Terzaki Street in Nafplion, Greece, saying, “A nice pension in Nafplion, a real undiscovered jewel of a town in southern Greece. A great town for strolling, with many seaside restaurants and friendly people. The pension costs 5,300 drachmas (or about $24) per night for two people. Ask for directions at the bus station.”

Drachmas? The Report Card is postmarked 8 November 1995

While Pension Acronafplia currently operates three guest houses in Nafplion, the location where Jack stayed is now the Pension Isabo, which charges about 64 (near $70) a night. 

Jack’s still an ITN subscriber. 

Maybe email IS better.