10 tips to save you from an ATM skimmer
As technology gets more advanced, so do the crooks who are trying to take advantage of it. And, in turn, us.
Updated Oct. 4, 2011, 9:33 p.m. ET
The ATM has always been a prime piece of real estate for thieves. You're exposed, you're handling money, and you have your back to the world. But it's been a dangerous game for criminals to play, as they too are exposed and risk being caught, or being seen. These days, it's far better to use advances in technology to do the dirty work for them. The skimmer is the direct result of that.
A skimmer is usually composed of two sections. The first attaches to the card slot, usually covering it completely. The second is a camera, which can be very close to the card slot or some distance away, at the top of the ATM. The card reader records the electronic data from your ATM card, which the thief can use to make an exact copy of it. The camera is there to record your PIN.
Here are photos of a typical skimming device. There are hundreds of varieties out there, made to match different machines. (The photos are courtesy of Brian Krebs. For more photos, check out two additional posts, here and here, from Krebs on Security.)
As you can see, they can be quite convincing. To be fair, some are fairly sketchy; others have been molded professionally and look very good. But they never look perfect (at least, not yet) and that's something you have on your side. But what you also need is some basic, honest-to-goodness suspicion. Remember, this is your money, and you should never take any ATM at face value.
Here are some tips I've collected from various news sources, both local and national (CNN, ABC, NBC, Fox), and sites including Lifehacker, The Consumerist, Boing Boing, eHow and Gothamist.
(What's even more disturbing is that when I typed in "ATM skimmers," Google tried to finish the sentence with "for sale," meaning an awful lot of people out there are trying to buy them. They're available for as little as $2,000, and I could buy one right now. Google also returned results on how to make an ATM skimmer, which I am not going to print here, obviously. But with the Internet giving thieves access to all the information they'd ever need from the comfort of home, you need to double the guard.)
Trust your instincts. If anything -- anything at all -- looks out of place on an ATM, don't use it. If you see a wire poking out or the plastic on the card reader doesn't quite match, or there appears to be some unusual wear and tear around the card slot, walk away. It could be fine, but why take a risk?
Look for mirrors, leaflet holders or anything else around the ATM. The machine should be free from anything like that, so add-ons are another huge red flag. Crooks hide cameras behind these devices.
Guard your PIN carefully. As most skimmers require two pieces of information from you, the PIN is something you can at least stop them from getting. You may seem a little paranoid to anyone waiting in line behind you, but who cares? Just cover your actions by cupping one hand over the numbers as your other hand enters them. It's rudimentary, but it works.
Take advantage of the debit card cash-back feature. When you're running low on cash, and a grocery or convenience store will give you cash back if you pay for your purchase with a debit card, simply hit the amount of cash you need. The service is free, saving you an ATM fee, and it's safer.
Become a creature of habit and use the same ATM each time. This won't protect you from encountering a skimmer, but you're much more likely to notice something fishy if you are familiar with the machine.
Look for ATMs with video surveillance. These machines have extra security, and this additional level of protection deters thieves from installing skimming devices.
Beware of ATMs that are off the beaten track. The thief will have more opportunity to install a skimmer on a machine that's out of the way. If you can, use an ATM inside a bank branch; these are almost impossible to manipulate. The portable ATMs, like you find in gas stations, are also very easy to mess with. I stay away from them unless I have no alternatives.
Don't be afraid to poke and prod the ATM. If something looks odd, investigate. These skimming devices are designed to be removed easily and quickly. If the thief can take it off, so can you.
Never use an ATM if someone is offering to help you with it. That may seem really obvious, but thieves can dress as technicians or bank tellers, or pose as another customer. Imagine an old lady asking for help, maybe asking if she can see how you use the machine so that she knows what to do. Or a guy in a very official uniform telling you the machine has just been cleaned, inspected or refilled. These are all signs that you should walk away.
Finally, if you do suspect something, let the local branch, gas station or store know. It may be a false alarm, but you could prevent someone who isn’t as vigilant as you are from being ripped off.
Please, be careful, and if in doubt, walk away.
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