Protect your money; avoid card skimmer scams

Card skimmer

This card skimmer has been inserted into an ATM in Exeter, England. Image: ThisIsntExeter/Flickr/CC BY

As the ways we make money become increasingly technological, so do the ways criminals steal it from us. Card skimmer scams, utilizing false card readers to steal valuable banking data, are on the rise. But there are some things you can do to minimize your chance of falling prey to one of these scammers.

Card skimmers rig ATMs

The card skimmer scam involves attaching a card skimming device over an ATM card reader. If a card is swiped in the false reader, the card holder’s banking information is captured. Sometimes the devices also utilize a pinhole camera above the keypad to record personal identification numbers being keyed in.

There is a great range in the kinds of hardware used. Sometime skimmers are flimsy and fairly easily spotted. Other times they are sophisticated and virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Sometimes the thieves will even set up an entire fake ATM.

The skimming devices store or transmit data in different ways. Some need to be be physically picked up from the device. In most cases, the data is transmitted, either wirelessly or over the telephone line.

Handheld skimmers

Handheld skimmer devices are also sometimes used by unscrupulous employees who process customer credit cards as part of their jobs. The thief will typically have a portable skimmer concealed in a such way that he or she can swipe customer cards inconspicuously.

Skimmer in action

Ways to protect yourself

Although it is probably next to impossible to completely eliminate the possibility of falling victim to one of these scams, there are a few precautions you can take that will greatly minimize your chances.

First and foremost, use secure ATMs — in bank lobbies or in areas under surveillance — if possible. Avoid ATMs in unlighted or out-of-the-way places. The better watched the ATM is, the less likely a thief will have the opportunity to tamper with it.

Be wary of machines with somebody hanging out close to them. Some skimmer devices need to have data physically cleared out on a regular basis. If an ATM does look suspicious, definitely move on to another. Don’t hesitate to let the bank or machine installer know about it before the scammer steals from more people.

Examine the ATM

When you do step up to the machine, the most important precaution you can take is to carefully examine it before swiping your card. Look especially closely at the card reader. Does anything stick out more than it should? Does the design or color scheme seem off?

If a reader does look incongruous or suspicious, Kevin Haley, director of Symantec’s Security Technology & Response Team, told PCWorld:

“I wouldn’t hesitate to pull on something if it looks like it doesn’t belong.”

When keying in your PIN, cover the pad with your free hand. If there is a hidden camera, it won’t be able to see the numbers you enter.


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