When you use an ATM, the most you may worry about is forgetting to take back your card or grabbing the money out of the machine. However, you have more to fear if an ATM skimmer is secretly working in the background.
What is "skimming?"
"Skimmers" are tiny devices that can be installed on card processing machines - anywhere you swipe a credit or debit card, such as an ATM, gas station pumps, or other places where customers may be in a hurry and not notice anything suspicious. Skimming devices read your card information as you swipe it, and are often used in conjunction with hidden cameras that can record your PIN number.
How do the thieves retrieve the stolen data?
Some return to the scene of the crime to remove their devices, while others can communicate wirelessly with a mobile device or laptop.
What do skimmers look like? What should I keep an eye out?
Here's a rundown of the different kinds of skimming devices:
- Card-Reader Overlays: The most common ATM skimmer is the card-reader overlay. It is made of plastic and fits over the slot where you insert your card. As you insert your card, the device reads the data from your card and stores it. How can you tell if there's an overlay hiding an illegal card reader? "Before inserting your card, look at the card reader for signs it has been altered," said Amber Holmes, a financial crimes information specialist with the FDIC. "Be suspicious if your card doesn't easily go into the machine or if the card reader appears loose, crooked or damaged, or if you notice scratches, glue, adhesive tape or other possible signs of tampering."
- Hidden Cameras: While banks typically have security cameras near their ATMs to keep an eye on the area, thieves sometimes hide tiny cameras on or around ATMs. "If positioned correctly, a brochure holder on an ATM is the perfect place to hide a mini-camera that can record PIN numbers as customers type them," warned Michael Benardo, manager of the FDIC's Cyber Fraud and Financial Crimes Section. "Also check for tiny holes in the ATM housing or in something else that looks like it was hastily stuck onto the ATM to cover a small camera."
- PIN-Capture Overlays: Criminals have been known to attach dummy keypads over an ATM's real keypad to record and capture PIN numbers as they are entered. The keypad might be fake if it looks too thick or is different from what you typically use.
- Fake ATM Faceplates: Some thieves go as far as placing a phony ATM cover that could contain card-reader overlays, hidden cameras and PIN-capture overlays over some or all of a real, fully operating machine. "The best way to determine if an ATM has a false cover is to look for flaws like loose wires, seams that are not flush and slots or keypads that look out of place," said Holmes.
We can all agree it is a huge headache to fall victim to card fraud. From raised debt levels to the havoc it could wreak on our credit history, the stakes are high. However, if we keep just a few basic tips in mind, it will go a long way toward safeguarding us from skimmer fraud.
- Do not use an ATM or a credit or debit card reader if anything looks suspicious, such as loose or extra parts. Alert the machine owner or the police immediately.
- Avoid ATMs in remote places, especially if the area is not well lit or not visible to security cameras and the general public.
- Go elsewhere if you see a sign directing you to only one of multiple ATMs in a location. It could be the machine that was tampered with by a crook.
- Shield the keypad with your hand when typing your PIN at the ATM or a retailer's checkout area. Doing so won't protect you from skimmers who use keypad overlays, but it will block the view of a hidden camera.
- Regularly check your bank and credit card accounts for unauthorized transactions, even small transactions you think might not be worth reporting to your bank. If you spot a potential problem, notify your bank as quickly as possible.
For a full list of ATM safety tips, click here.