What Are Card Skimmers?
Card skimmers are small, electronic devices secretly installed by thieves at payment terminals such as gas pumps and ATMs. Less prevalent, but still targets, are restaurants and retail stores. When someone swipes their card to make a payment, these devices steal the information off the card’s magnetic stripe. The stolen data is then used to make fraudulent purchases or create counterfeit cards.
Sometimes a tiny camera is planted to record cardholders entering a PIN number into an ATM. PIN numbers can also be stolen via fake keypads placed over a real ATM keypad. It is estimated that skimming costs financial institutions and consumers more than $1 billion each year.
How to Check for and Avoid Skimmers
Although skimmers can be hard to spot, they can usually be discerned by doing quick visual or physical inspections before swiping or inserting a card. They are often placed on top of the actual card reader making it stick out at an odd angle or cover arrows in a panel. Compare the card reader to others at a neighboring ATM or gas pump and look out for any differences.
Here Are Some Tips from The FBI:
- Inspect ATMs, POS terminals, and other card readers before using. Look for anything loose, crooked, damaged, or scratched. Don't use the card reader if you notice anything unusual.
- Pull at the edges of the keypad before entering your PIN. Then, cover the keypad when you enter your PIN to prevent cameras from recording your entry.
- Use ATMs in a well-lit, indoor location, which are less vulnerable targets.
- Be alert for skimming devices in tourist areas, which are popular targets.
- Use debit and credit cards with chip technology. In the U.S., there are fewer devices that steal chip data versus magnetic strip data.
Other Ways Cards Can Be Skimmed
It’s much more difficult for a thief to install a card skimmer on a point-of-sale (POS) system at a retail store, but it can happen. Make sure the card reader looks as it should. If a restaurant is involved in a scam, there may be no way to know because cards are often handed to the server who can then swipe the card through a skimmer before giving it back to the customer.
Best Practices to Avoid Getting Skimmed
- Choose a fuel pump that is closer to the store and in direct view of the attendant. These pumps are less likely to be targets for skimmers.
- Run your debit card as a credit card. If that’s not an option, cover the keypad when you enter your PIN.
- Stay vigilant. If any part of a gas pump’s card reader looks suspicious, pay for gas inside with the cashier and alert them that there may be a skimmer installed at the pump.
- Try to only use official bank ATMs instead of nonbank ATMs that are often found inside convenience stores or bars.
- Cover fingers with the other hand while entering a PIN to block potential cameras.
Keep an Eye On Things
Regularly monitor your card activity. Check bank statements or, even better, access your account online to review. Report suspicious activity as soon as possible.