What Is a Credit Card Skimmer and How to Protect Yourself?
A Credit card skimmer is a device that thieves place on card readers to steal credit card information. Over the years, thieves have stolen millions of dollars through these scams. Although security is better now than it used to be, credit card skimming is still common.
How does a credit card skimmer work?
A credit card skimmer is a small device that attaches to the magnetic strip on a card reader. It steals and stores information as people swipe their cards. The real card reader underneath can usually still function normally, so nothing seems suspicious until the victim notices unauthorized purchases on their credit card.
There are a few different types of card skimmers that can attach to different types of card readers. An overlay skimmer is usually found on an ATM, a gas pump, or other machines where you insert your card into a slot. It fits over the front of the slot and steals the information as you push it through. Ultra-thin skimmers can be found inside the card reader slot in a retail business.
Thieves sometimes also place hidden cameras near the card reader to record people entering their PIN. The thieves usually leave the skimmer in place for a day or two before returning and removing it. They usually use the data to clone cards or make online purchases, but they occasionally sell the information online.
EMV chip cards are safer from skimmers than magnetic strip readers. However, there’s still a risk of falling victim to credit card fraud with an EMV chip card. The cards still have data on the magnetic strip, and some businesses with older technology require you to use the magnetic strip.
How can you prevent credit card skimming?
There are often signs that a credit card skimmer is in place. If you check for the common signs of a skimmer, you can prevent yourself from becoming a victim of credit card fraud.
Consider the location.
Thieves install card skimmers on ATMs in quiet areas so no one notices them tampering with the machine. They usually target outside ATMs or gas stations that don’t receive much traffic. ATMs inside banks, malls, or businesses are usually safer than those outside.
It’s also more common for thieves to install skimmers on weekends than on weekdays. If a bank doesn’t have weekend hours, it’s difficult to report suspicious ATMs on a weekend. The thief can install the credit card skimmer on Saturday and remove it before the bank opens on Monday. When using an outside ATM on a weekend, be extra careful to check for signs of credit card skimming.
Inspect the card reader.
Check for signs of tampering in and around the card reader. Look at the reader itself, the keyboard, the screen, and the top of the ATM. One piece of the machine might be a different color or have a different style. If something looks tampered with or out of place, don’t use the ATM.
Before you enter your PIN, feel the keyboard. A thief may have placed a keyboard overlay on it to steal your PIN. If it feels thicker or more resistant than normal, don’t use it.
You can also check for a credit card skimmer by pushing or pulling on everything. ATMs should not have any loose parts. If something wiggles, it could be a sign of a credit card scam. Pull on any protruding pieces, and test to see if the keyboard is securely attached.
Check the nearby card readers or gas pumps.
See if all the car readers look the same or if yours has any differences. If anything looks different, don’t take the risk. Some ATMs have a sign with an image of what the ATM should look like. However, the thief could place a fake image over the sign, so this might not be a foolproof way to check for a credit card skimmer.
You can also check to see if your card reader functions differently from the others. For example, one card reader might have a flashing light indicating where to enter your card, and another may not.
Avoid using the magnetic strip whenever possible.
Always check underneath the PIN pad for a slot for an EMV chip reader. Chip readers can be skimmed, but it’s much less common than skimmers on magnetic strips.
Some credit card readers accept NFC payments like Apple Pay and Android Pay. Consider using this payment method instead of swiping your card when it’s a possibility. NFC payments don’t reveal your personal information, so they’re more secure. Even if someone steals the data, they’ll only receive a useless virtual credit card number.
Avoid entering your PIN whenever possible.
If you’re using your debit card at a gas station, choose the credit option instead of the debit option to avoid entering your PIN. Usually, this will just require you to enter your billing zip code.
If you do have to enter your PIN, always assume someone is watching you. Cover the keyboard with your hand in case a thief attached a camera. Even if a credit card skimmer steals your information, they can’t do much if they don’t have your PIN.
Trust your instincts.
Your mind may tell you that something is wrong even if you don’t consciously notice any warning signs. If you have a bad feeling about using an ATM or a card reader, listen to your instincts. It’s better to experience the minor inconvenience of finding another ATM than to face a credit card scam.
What should you do if your card is stolen?
Even if you check for a credit card skimmer, there may not be noticeable signs. If your information does get stolen, report it to your bank or credit card issuer right away. Your bank or credit card company will return your money, and reporting the credit card fraud could prevent someone else from facing the same issue.
Check your debit and credit card transactions regularly. This way, if you notice a suspicious purchase, you can report it in a timely manner. If you think a thief has stolen your information, place a fraud alert on your credit report. After filing the report, you’ll have to confirm your identity before submitting any credit card applications. This reduces the risk of a thief successfully committing identity theft and credit card fraud.
You should also notify the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC investigates credit card skimming rings, and your report could help them catch the criminals.
Knowing the warning signs of a credit card skimmer can help you protect yourself from fraud. If thieves do steal your information, you should be fine as long as you report it. Hopefully, with new technology, credit card skimmers will someday stop being a threat. While they’re still a reality, being aware of the signs is the best way to protect yourself.