Most of us aim to dodge sky-high ATM fees and other costly banking charges. But when it comes to using ATMs, we tend to skip taking necessary precautions to avoid ATM skimming devices, and as a result, we open ourselves up to financial fraud.
Here’s how ATM skimmer scams work: Criminals add skimmer devices on the front of automatic teller machines. These devices appear as though they are part of the ATM, making it difficult for users to discern which devices are compromised. The ATM skimming device saves the victim’s card information and pin number, so that the thief can easily retrieve the debit or credit card information later on.
Another common device used by criminals to access sensitive financial information is an ATM shimmer, which is located inside ATM card readers. Shimmers read the data from the chip on victims’ credit or debit cards.
So, if you’re wondering what you need to know about ATM skimming, and what steps to take to avoid having your sensitive financial information compromised by hackers, read on.
Skimming devices are prevalent. Credit card skimmers are often associated with ATMs, but you can find these devices attached to any machine in which you insert your credit card or debit card. Banks, gas stations and other businesses that provide public-facing systems where customers can insert their credit cards to make payments are especially vulnerable, says Nathan Wenzler, senior director of cybersecurity at Moss Adams, an accounting firm headquartered in Seattle.
“If for no other reason than the huge advancements being made in 3D printing, criminals can easily and cheaply create a skimming device that sits on top of the real credit card swiping mechanism and looks exactly like the real thing,” he says. “This makes it very difficult for a user to tell at first glance whether or not the gas pump, ATM or convenience store payment system is secured or not.”
Making matters worse, some skimmers can send the stolen information to thieves, so if somebody finds a skimmer, your information can become compromised.
How to Steer Clear of ATM Scams and Skimming Devices
While skimming devices are difficult to spot, ATM shimmers are virtually impossible to detect. Still, there are several tactics to employ to prevent leaving yourself vulnerable to crooks looking to steal your personal information and access your cash.
Here’s how to safeguard yourself from becoming the victim of ATM scams:
1. Wiggle the credit card reader. “It sounds silly, but, as many skimmers are made to form fit over the existing slot for your credit card, often just wiggling the plastic or pulling on it just a little bit can reveal that there is something attached to the real device underneath,” Wenzler says. “Legitimate credit card processing machines shouldn’t have any give whatsoever, so it shouldn’t budge, bend or break when you test it.”
2. Carefully inspect card readers. “If you’re paying close attention to matching ATMs or gas pumps, you may be able to notice if something is off. Look for slight differences in the color of the device, the size of it, different amounts of wear on the keys on the number pad and other small visual differences that may reveal that a skimmer has been placed on top of the real device,” Wenzler says.
Another rare ATM scam to look out for is fake ATMs that can record your personal information, like your credit card number, but will not dispense cash. These are generally stolen or used ATMs that thieves get their hands on. The more you familiarize yourself with the appearance of reliable ATMs, the less likely you are to be fooled.
3. Ask a store or bank owner to inspect the card reader. “If you have the slightest suspicion that something is wrong, bring it up to the merchant or bank,” Wenzler says. “They’re concerned about protecting your money and personal information as one of their customers, and should always be glad to check the device more thoroughly for you. These kinds of skimmers can give the business a bad reputation if customers are concerned about their security, so they have a vested interest in making sure everything is secured,” he adds.
4. Shield your numbers when you type in your pin code. Thieves can hide pinhole cameras on ATMs and gas station pumps, and record victims typing their pin numbers. If you cover the keypad with one hand, it should shield you from a camera — and any possible bystanders.
5. Dodge outdoor public ATMs. Joseph Carson, chief security scientist at Thycotic, a cybersecurity company, suggests that you use an ATM inside a building, like a bank or a department store. “The reason behind that is because the ATMs inside are less likely to be compromised and difficult for those shoulder surfers,” Carson says.
Beverly Friedmann, a content manager for the consumer website, ReviewingThis.com, echoes similar sentiments. She says that several years ago she used an outdoor ATM located around Times Square. That’s considered a major faux pas among local city dwellers, according to Friedmann. “As a NYC native, I likely should have known better,” she says.
Sure enough, about a week later, Friedmann checked her balance to find $7 left. Somebody had drained her account of $1,500 in cash by apparently creating a counterfeit debit card and going to an ATM near the United Nations headquarters. Fortunately, her bank refunded her money about a week later.
This was part of a large skimming operation; tourist spots in the city are popular targets for thieves, Friedmann says. Part of the appeal for criminals seems to be that if you’re busy traveling, you may not be closely monitoring your bank account. To protect yourself, she advises sidestepping ATM machines that aren’t located within reputable large-chain retailers.
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Update 03/05/19: This article was originally published on June 27, 2007, and has been updated with new information.