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How to Spot ATM Skimming Devices

The next time you pull up to an ATM, take a closer look at the machine. Does it look a little clunkier than usual? Look too at what’s around you: Are there mirrors? Is there a brochure holder over your shoulder? Does it look like there might be a false panel or an extra light bar attached to the machine?

If something looks or feels amiss, walk away. You might save yourself from perpetuating a consumer fraud called ATM skimming. That’s when thieves attach devices onto ATMs in order to copy a credit or debit card number, the information on the magnetic strip and even your personal identification number.

Sophisticated skimming devices placed right over a card-reader slot allow scammers to capture the information embedded on the magnetic strip of a debit or credit card. They might also have what’s called a pinhole camera mounted over your shoulder — say, in a plastic holder for brochures or a false panel — that records your fingers inputting your PIN. Or, there could be an overlay on the keypad that does so. Within seconds, they have all they need to duplicate your card.

They’re not just stealing your credit card or debit card number and information like the expiration date, but also the information encoded on the back of the magnetic strip. All they need to do is encode the information on another magnetic strip and they’ve re-created your card. The attacks tend to be in high-traffic areas, such as big cities or popular malls. But stand-alone machines anywhere also are targets.

Here are some tips to keep in mind next time you go to withdraw cash:

  • Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t look right or feel right, move on to the next ATM. Victims have said that they had a feeling when they were using the machines that something wasn’t right. As you key in your PIN, cover the keyboard with the other hand to block anyone or a camera from seeing.
  • Don’t use ATMs with unusual signage or instructions, such as a command to enter your PIN twice to complete a transaction.
  • Be picky about what ATMs you use. Don’t go up to an ATM in a dark place. Find one that’s in a well-lit area, publicly visible and not tucked away somewhere.

So how can you tell if an ATM has been altered with a skimming device or camera?

A lot of skimming devices are stuck onto the machine or nearby with Velcro or two-sided tape. Keypads that aren’t concave, for example, could have overlays that flatten or pull the surface of the keys out. A card-reader slot might have a perfectly molded attachment over it that pops off. Some skimmers are custom-made with matching molding and a color that corresponds to a targeted ATM.

Consumers should stay away from ATMs that appear to have been altered. If anything on the front of the machine looks crooked, loose or damaged, it could be a sign that someone has attached a skimming device or a camera. Report anything that looks suspicious to the store, gas station, financial institution, or any other organization that has the ATM.