Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

During arrests of criminal couriers, law enforcement officers rarely find bundles of cash wrapped in rubber bands anymore. Instead, they find stacks of plastic cards — bank credit and debit cards, retail gift cards, library cards, even hotel card keys — that have been turned into prepaid cards.

Macon County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Deputy Josh Stewart presented the Macon County Board of Commissioners with an proposed agreement with ERAD (Electronic Recovery and Access to Data) Tuesday night to catapult the county’s technology ahead of drug criminals in the region. “ERAD is becoming a vital tool for law enforcement seizing funds on open sources cards and securing the funds associated with criminal activity,” said Stewart.

Stewart has been trained on ERAD devices and will spearhead the project for the department. The ERAD Prepaid Card Reader is a small, handheld device that uses wireless connectivity to allow law enforcement officers in the field to check the balance of cards. This allows for identification of suspicious prepaid cards and the ability to put a temporary hold on the linked funds until a full investigation can be completed.

“We are always attempting to obtain and utilize every tool available to us to address the ongoing drug issue and and this program will allow us to enhance our efforts,” said Sheriff Robert Holland.

Prior to the agreement, when law enforcement officers are involved in a drug investigation and find pre-loaded cards, such as Visa cards that can be purchased and loaded at the cash register of local grocery stores, the MCSO has no way to seize those cards and access those funds, even though those funds are being used in criminal activity. Law enforcement can only seize cash, so criminals have become savvy enough to begin using the preloaded cards or gift cards in exchange for drugs, because those are not seized during an investigation. The agreement will now give MCSO the tools needed to seize funds placed on those open source cards.

Using an ERAD device, a law enforcement officer can retrieve the balance of any magnetic-stripe card. If the card is determined to be a prepaid card, then the officer can instantly freeze or seize the funds loaded on the card using the device.

Civil forfeiture allows the police to seize property or cash on mere suspicion that it’s connected to criminal activity. Cash seized in relation to criminal activity can be returned to the agency in which it was collected and be used for law enforcement purposes. Legislation mandates that a percentage of the funds seized in connection to criminal activity be given to the federal government, typically about 30 percent of what is collected, according to Stewart. The newly approved contract will allow the funds on prepaid cards to be seized as well.