March 31, 2020

Credit Card Skimmers

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Thieves might be stealing your data with credit card skimmers. Take a look at their methods and how to spot them. You need to protect yourself.

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Credit card skimmers are small devices that often go unnoticed by users. According to David Tente, the director of ATM Industry Association, more than half of today's skimmers go undetected by consumers. Many skimmers even send the stolen information wirelessly to thieves, making it easier for them to access the information without getting caught.

Instances of payment cards being compromised increased 10% at both ATMs and merchants in 2017, according to a study conducted by FICO, a data analytics company. The study also states that the number of skimmers and/or compromised readers also increased by 8%.

Credit card skimmers are commonly found in ATMs and in gas station card readers, but they can be placed anywhere. In addition to the skimmer, some crooks place small, undetectable cameras at ATMs to record your PIN. This makes it easier for thieves to replicate your card and get access to your accounts.

Skimmers capture all of the necessary data, including:

  • Credit card/debit card number
  • Your name
  • Credit card/debit card expiration date

While credit card skimmers and stealing credit cards are commonplace today, it doesn't mean you have to become a victim too.

Types of Skimming Devices

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Technology continually helps crooks create more devices that become harder to detect, but the most commonly used today include:

  • Credit card reader overlays: A piece of plastic that lies over the actual credit card reader captures your information. If you look closely, you can often detect these skimmers because they look different or make the reader look damaged or "off."

  • PIN capture overlays: A fake keypad laid over the actual keypad that captures the information you enter. Look closely at the keypad, noticing any irregularities or differences, especially if it's an ATM you use often.

  • Hidden cameras: Crooks hide cameras throughout ATMs to capture your PIN information. Look for drill-sized holes in the ATM, altered brochure stands with cameras hidden behind them, or even cameras hidden in the bank's security camera.

  • Fake ATM faceplates: Look at the entire ATM as a whole. Does it look altered? Does something not seem right? Look for random wires, crooked keys, or slots that seem "off."

Other Ways to Spot and Avoid Credit Card Skimmers

While it would be amazing if we could always catch a skimmer immediately by knowing the types of skimmers out there, don't rely on it. The more you empower and educate yourself, the easier it will be to catch them.

Take a Moment and Look Around
Your eyes are the most important asset when looking for skimmers. Don't be in a hurry to get your cash. Instead, take a step back and look at the machine and its surroundings. Does anything seem out of the ordinary? Does the machine look like someone tampered with it?

According to Northwest Community Credit Union, some of the main things to look for are:

  • Tape or glue residue
  • An excessively bulky card insert area or keypad
  • Things hanging from the ATM
  • Any loose attachments

Inspect All Areas of the ATM
Don't just look at the reader itself. Thieves hide cameras in speakers, brochure stands, and even on the bank's or gas station's camera. Feel around, use your eyes, and notice if anything seems different. If something doesn't seem right, don't use it.

Michael Benardo, manager of the FDIC's Cyber Fraud and Financial Crimes Section, said that cameras can often be hidden anywhere.

"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," Benardo said. "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."

Use Your Hands
It's okay to get hands-on with the credit card machine. Wiggle the card reader itself. Does it move or seem loose? Does the keyboard move?

If anything easily moves or comes off when you pull on it, it may be a skimmer. ATM and credit card machines are typically fairly solid. Anything that's been added or altered will move easier and is a good indication of tampering.

Look at the Machine's Colors
Look for color discrepancies on the machine. Does the keypad match the rest of the machine? Does one part look like a different color or have less fading than the rest? These could be signs that the machine was tampered with and could contain a skimmer.

How Do the Keys Feel?
If you decide to use the machine, take a close look at the keys. Touch them before you enter your card. Do they feel loose or spongy? Do the keys look thicker than normal? This could be a sign that the keypad has either a heat-sensor camera inside it or thieves tampered with the machine in another way that will capture your information and steal it. If the keys don't feel right to you, move on to another one.

Look Closely at the Logo
Even if you aren't familiar with a company's logo, you can tell if it's different than the rest around it. Do the graphics look out of line? Is a logo missing? These could be signs that someone messed with the machines or put an overlay on it that contains the equipment that will steal your information.

Compare Nearby Machines
If you're at a gas station pump or a bank with multiple ATMs, take a glance at the neighboring machines. Does anything look different? If so, chances are one machine has been altered. Thieves typically only hit one or two machines at a time, so comparing a machine to others nearby may give you a good indication if it's safe.

Choose Machines Near an Attendant
If you're using an ATM or paying at the gas station pump, always choose the machines in eyesight of the employees or just go into the gas station to pay. There's a lower chance that those machines will have been tampered with for fear of being caught. Thieves typically choose the machines farthest away and the least detectable, but, of course, the chance is always there, so still be aware.

Use ATMs in Well-Lit Areas
While ATMs don't have employees around much (thanks to bankers' hours), you can still choose machines within well-lit areas or that are easily seen from the street. Research shows that standalone ATMs in places like convenience stores are more likely to be targeted than those in or near banks. Choosing an ATM that is out of sight makes it easier for crooks to mess with and attach a skimmer.

Use Your Hand as a Shield When Inputting Your PIN
Hidden cameras easily nab your PIN when you type it into the keypad. They hide the cameras in fixed places that you wouldn't think to look. But, if you hold your hand over the keypad, making it impossible to see your keystrokes, you may prevent them from capturing your PIN, which is an important piece of the pie.

However, you should still use caution because some thieves install heat-sensitive cameras within the keyboard that captures your PIN by detecting the heat patterns. One of the best ways to prevent this from happening is gently touching all of the keys on a pin pad after entering your PIN.

Use an App
Your smartphone may help you detect a credit card skimmer if it's Bluetooth enabled. While the accuracy of the apps may not be 100%, it's another layer of security when protecting your information. Skimmer Scanner (Android) can detect Bluetooth skimmers at gas stations.

Another app in the works is Bluetana, which is only available for government officials at this time. Developed by researchers at the University of California and the University of Illinois, it's an app that can detect skimmers through the use of Bluetooth signatures and signal strength. To date, the app has found 64 Bluetooth skimmers.

Avoid Credit Card Readers on the Weekends and Holidays
You have a greater chance of being susceptible to credit card skimming on the weekends and popular holidays. Thieves target weekends because there's less customer service available and consumers are busier and may not realize the theft until it's too late. According to the Secret Service, they recovered more than 70 skimmers throughout the nation during the 2018 Memorial Day weekend.

Choose to Pay Inside Whenever Possible
While it's more convenient to pay outside, it's also riskier. When pumping gas or getting cash, consider going inside the store or bank to conduct your business. Credit monitoring company Experian recommends choosing well-lit, busy gas stations whenever possible to cut down on the possibility of skimming. Crooks are less likely to mess with the credit card machines when there are eyes watching them everywhere—they go for the readers that are out of sight and easy game.

Use Chip Cards Whenever Possible
Swiping your credit or debit card leaves you open to fraudulent activity. It's much easier for crooks to copy your information off the magstripe than it is with an EMV chip. EMV cards transfer encrypted data, which makes it much harder for crooks to steal the information and sell your credit card data on the dark web. It's almost always safer to use a chip reader than a stripe reader.

Set Up a 'Card Not Present' Notification on Your Credit Card
Since thieves won't have your credit card—just the numbers they can only use it online. You can set up "card not present" notifications with your credit card company. This alerts you the moment someone tries to use your card. While this doesn't prevent the theft, it minimizes the financial damage the thief can do.

Pay With a Digital Wallet
If you have Apple Pay, Android Pay, or any other touchless pay option, use it. Thieves can't steal your credit card number when you use these systems since the "card" is a unique 16-digit number that only pertains to that particular transaction.

Don't Enter Your PIN at a Gas Station
If you can exclusively use a credit card when paying for gas, do it. If you have to use a debit card, always choose to process the payment as a credit card. Most gas station screens will give you the option to run your card either way.

Swiping your card as a debit card means entering your PIN. You open yourself up to the risk of more fraud. Do you know if there are hidden cameras anywhere around that pump? Why take a chance? Instead, run it as credit. You only have to provide your ZIP code then, plus you get the protection credit card companies offer if your card is stolen.

Don't Use Credit Cards in Vending Machines
Remember, thieves like machines that are out of plain sight. Vending machines are typically located in back corners or out of the way of the general traffic. This makes it easy for thieves to put skimmers in the readers, stealing information from anyone who runs their card through it. Try to only use cash when buying from a vending machine.

Look at a Fuel Pump's Seal
Most gas stations place a seal on the pump. If the seal is broken, it's a sign to gas station owners that the pump has been tampered. Because owners can't be watching every pump 24/7, use your own awareness to check the pump out. If you notice a broken seal, report it and move onto another pump.

Check Your Phone
Today, most skimmers are Bluetooth enabled. If you turn on your phone's Bluetooth settings and see a strange connection attempting to reach your phone (typically with a lot of numbers), it could be a sign that a skimmer is in the machine. A 2019 study found 64 Bluetooth-based skimmers after examining 1,185 gas stations in four different states.

Use ATMs That Banks Keep Behind Locked Doors
Some banks offer 24/7 ATMs but keep them behind locked doors. You have to use your debit card to enter it. This reduces the risk of someone tampering with the machine since they won't have access to it (unless they are a bank customer). Using machines that have a lower likelihood of tampering may help lower your risk of fraud.

Activate Your Card's Fraud Alerts
According to a 2020 survey conducted by VISA, 69% of people have not signed up for transaction alerts from their banks. Most banks and credit card companies offer free fraud alerts, so take advantage of them. Typically, you can set it up to have a text or email sent to you the moment fraudulent activity is suspected. While this is after the fact, you can minimize the amount the thief gets away with on your card.

Pay With Cash
Finally, don't forget about cold, hard cash. It doesn't bounce, doesn't put you at risk for fraud, and keeps you accountable. While it's not as convenient as whipping out your card, it lowers the risk of financial destruction if you come across a credit card skimmer.

Do credit card skimmers get caught?
According to FICO, the number of credit card readers hacked and caught increased 30% in 2016, and that was after a 6 times increase in 2015.

Where Should You Look for Credit Card Skimmers?

While we focused on gas stations and ATMs as the largest targets, thieves don't stop there. Always be on the lookout, especially at the following:

  • Gas stations: Be extra careful around pumps that are the furthest away from the cashier's view.

  • ATMs: Watch out for free-standing ATMs or those that sit outside unsupervised at night. Banks located on busy streets may have a lower chance of being affected, but any banks with ATMs out of plain sight are high risk.

  • Stores: We'd like to think all employees are honest, but that's not the case. Inside jobs are common. Pay close attention to credit card readers in stores, giving them a good look over and even feeling around it to make sure everything is intact.

  • Restaurants: How many times have you let a waiter walk away with your credit card? Again, we'd like to think they are honest, but you never know. Try keeping the waiter within view or use the table kiosk payment center.

Bottom Line

Whenever you use your debit or credit card, be on the lookout. Check out the machine before entering your card. If you must use a swipe card, touch the keypad and wiggle the card reader first. Do your due diligence to make sure you aren't being taken advantage of by a crook.

Write to Kim P at Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for our latest posts.

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