What Is ATM Skimming, Why Should You Care?

If ATM fees are your biggest banking burden, you might want to rethink what you know about the machines you’re putting your debit card into. What appears as a secure transaction between you and your bank is actually vulnerable to theft. It’s called ATM Skimming. ATM skimming is no small operation. In the fall of 2010, two brothers from Bulgaria were arrested after attempting to defraud two banks for more than $1 million, using information they obtained through skimming. Not all attempts are that large scale, though there are criminals across the U.S. who are trying to rig ATM machines to rip off your info. Here’s how it works and how to prevent it from happening to you:

The Process

There are two steps to skimmers getting ahold of your information: ripping the data from your ATM card, and figuring out your pin number. Certain devices can be installed on various ATMs to avoid what data criminals need to drain your bank account. The first device is the actual skimmer itself; a card reader that stores a card’s information. The false card reader looks very similar to the original and is installed over the top of the ATM’s card slot. Some of these devices are so sophisticated that they can actually send text messages to the thief’s phone when a new card is used.

Now the criminal needs your PIN. This is done with what’s called an ATM PIN capture overlay. It’s essentially a fake number pad installed on top of the real one on an ATM. Like the false card reader that stores your card’s information, the overlay saves any PIN entered on the keypad and gives that information right back to the thief.

And just like that, your account information is stolen in two steps. Some criminals will install cameras above the keypad for a birds eye view of the action, but the first two examples are the most effective and deceptive methods used today.

The Prevention

This all sounds pretty frightening, but it’s really all very simple to spot and prevent if you know what to look for. Some consumers will go as far as getting themselves an identity protection service like Lifelock in the event a skimming incident does occur, but both the false card readers and capture overlays have pretty obvious visual queues that give them away. One of the best visual triggers is to gently pull at the card reader or keypad. Are they firmly installed or wobble around? Do they seem to stick out above the surface of the rest of the machine in an unsightly manner? Best bet is to pass on the ATM and get your cash elsewhere.

If you don’t feel comfortable identifying the pieces of ATM skimmers, sometimes the best bet is to just stick with your bank. Branch ATMs aren’t immune to fraud, but they’re certainly safer than the ones you find in more obscure locations. Remember, privacy is a criminal’s best friend when tampering with an ATM. Branch locations make them much more secure.

If you want to get even more creative, many grocery stores and gas stations offer cash back with debit card purchases. Not only is this a good way to skip the lousy ATM fees, but also creates a sure way to withdraw cash without the possibility of fraud.

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