It’s hardly a piece of news that anyone could miss. The story, which broke in most of the region’s newspapers over the weekend, detailed how a gang of criminals hacked into the pre-paid debit card databases of two banks, and then used fake cards and the account details to withdraw US$45m over the space of a couple of hours on 22 December and 19 and 20 February. After the UAE and Oman ATM scams, whom should we trust?

What has proved to be the eye-opener for me is that these banks are based in our region, in the UAE and Oman, and that the criminals were able to gain access to databases being held by payment processing firms in India.

Aside from allegedly targeting and being able to access RAKBank’s and Bank Muscat’s databases held by EnStage and ElectraCard Services, the thieves were able to travel in and out of the region and ensure that they were able to transfer the withdrawn funds which they had acquired over the course of 40,500 transactions.

While Bank Muscat was only recently hit, in February, RAKBank’s CEO Graham Honeybill explained to media that “the amount of the potential loss was AED17.4m ($4.74m) and this was fully provided for before RAKBANK closed its 2012 accounts.

Whilst regional banks may not be as forthcoming on fraud as I’d like there are a number of steps that we as consumers need to take to safeguard our own finances.

Here’s some tips below that may help save you from being a future fraud victim.

  1. Insist on chip and pin – most of the region’s banks use chip and pin technology, which is much safer than the magnetic strip technology exploited by the gang. Chip and pin systems offer additional security.
  2. Set up alert systems – most banks offer SMS alerts for when you or a partner use your cards. Set this system up, so that you will know when your card is being used, for how much and where the card is being used
  3. Alert your bank – don’t wait to report suspicious transactions. Alert your bank immediately by phone and also in writing.
  4. Keep your records – it’s remarkable how few people save copies of their bank statements. Retain either soft or hard copy versions in case of fraud.
  5. Change your passwords – keep your various pin numbers and passwords random so that in the case of fraud criminals will not be able to access your other accounts.

Luckily in this case there’s little information out there to suggest that average consumers in the region have been affected by these massive ATM scams. But someone will have to cover the losses. I hope that our banks step up their game and rethink how to best safeguard our account information including the use of outsourcing providers and prevent any further ATM scams. After all, if it can happen to prepaid debit cards couldn’t the same techniques also be used to exploit security lapses for current account customers like me and you?

Alex Malouf has been a journalist, writer and columnist in the Gulf for over a decade. He speaks both Arabic and English and has lived in Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He blogs at alexofarabia.com.