Many of us hold our credit and debit cards near and dear to our hearts. After all, these little pieces of plastic are direct lines to our bank accounts and, therefore, our personal information. While we go through our day making sure we keep them safe in our wallets and purses, most credit card thieves are actually more focused on stealing our information from places we use our cards every day, such as at ATMs or gas pumps. I witnessed this myself.
I was waiting to use an ATM that is located on the sidewalk outside my local bank. As I waited for two customers in front of me to complete their transactions, I noticed a man standing on the sidewalk across the street and staring at the ATM. When it was my turn to use the ATM, I noticed that the slot where I would usually insert my card looked strange; it did not match the rest of the ATM and had a tiny gap that seemed odd. After briefly picking at the slot with my finger, a device known as a “skimmer” popped off into the palm of my hand. The suspicious character across the street briskly turned around and took off.
A credit card skimmer is a small device that can attach to the front or top of a legitimate scanner where you swipe your card. These skimmers then record the information from the magnetic strip on the card for the criminal to collect later. Skimmers are most commonly seen on ATMs and gas pumps. Being in the IT business, I knew what I was looking at, but it’s not hard to spot a skimmer when you know what to look for. I’ve included an example here, but you can find more if you search for them on the internet.
- Use ATMs located inside, not on the street, where they are less likely to be compromised. When available, make it a point to use indoor ATMs and avoid drive-through or sidewalk machines.
- Before using your card, carefully inspect the area where you insert or swipe your card at an ATM or gas pump. Pay close attention to anything that appears to be loosely attached to the scanner with glue or tape. Does the scanner look damaged or slightly crooked?
At gas stations and places where there are multiple ATMs, check to see if the scanners/slots match. Many times, criminals will only put a skimmer on a single card scanner to lower their odds of getting caught.
- When entering your PIN, cover up your movements with your other hand. Criminals occasionally attach a hidden camera so they can see your PIN and use your card as a debit card in the future.
- Check your bank account frequently to make sure all the transactions are legitimate. With ATM or debit card loss/fraudulent charges, the sooner you report the fraud, the less you are liable for. If you report debit card fraud within two business days, your maximum loss is $50. After that, it can goes up to $500. And if you fail to report it after 60 days, you are liable for any and all charges. (Source: Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information)
If you see a skimmer on the machine, make sure you report it to the bank or gas station, or call the police.
Ultimately, protecting your cards where you use them comes down to paying attention and understanding the risks when you use your cards. Be cautious and alert.
For more information and photos of skimmers, check out Brian Krebs’ blog series on skimmers.
Richard Wyckoff is an Information Security Analyst and a member of the Information Security team at the University of Vermont Medical Center. He is studying for his Master’s Degree in Information Security and Assurance at Norwich University. To relax, he enjoys going to the park with his wife and their two rescued pit bulls.