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Jailed Romanian hacker repents, invents ATM security scheme

Add-on device blocks card skimmers

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A Romanian man serving a five-year jail sentence for bank-machine fraud says he's come up with a device that can be attached to any ATM to make the machine invulnerable to card skimmers.

Valentin Boanta was arrested in 2009 and charged with supplying ATM skimmers – devices that can be attached to ATMs to surreptitiously copy the data from unwitting users' cards – to a local organized crime gang.

It was during his subsequent trial and sentencing that Boanta saw the light and traded in his black hat for a white one, Reuters reports.

"Crime was like a drug for me. After I was caught, I was happy I escaped from this adrenaline addiction," Boanta told reporters from his jail cell in Vaslui, Romania. "So that the other part, in which I started to develop security solutions, started to emerge."

Boanta's solution, known as the Secure Revolving System (SRS), is an ingenious one that uses mechanical rather than digital security.

ATM skimmers work by installing a second, concealed card reader over the one that's built into the ATM. When an unsuspecting bank customer inserts a card into the slot, the card's magnetic stripe first runs past the read head of the skimmer, allowing it to copy all of the card's data. The transaction then proceeds as normal and the ATM returns the card to the customer, who is none the wiser.

With Boanta's device installed on the ATM, however, that all changes. Customers insert their cards into the slot long side first, so that the magnetic stripe is parallel to the face of the machine. The device then rotates the card 90 degrees into the ATM, where the legitimate card reader scans the magnetic stripe, then rotates it back out again to return it to the customer.

That rotation makes it impossible for an add-on skimmer to read the card, because the magnetic stripe never moves in a straight line until it is secure inside the ATM.

Obvious, yet ingenious: You don't need to understand Romanian to get the idea

While awaiting the outcome of his trial, Valentin pitched his idea to Mircea Tudor and Adrian Bizgar of Bucharest-based technology firm MB Telecom, who helped him to patent his idea and funded development of the SRS device.

The design would go on to win the International Press Prize at the 41st International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva, Switzerland, in April. Boanta, however, wasn't available to accept the award. He's currently just six months into his sentence and won't see freedom for another four and a half years. Still, his partners at MB Telecom say all credit for the SRS design should go to him.

"He fully deserves such recognition," Tudor told Reuters. "He's taking part in improving Romania's image abroad and he'll surely join our team when released."

MB Telecom is currently finalizing details of the commercial version of the device and expects to bring it to market in the second half of the year. ®

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