8 Tips to Protect Yourself From ATM Skimming

The scam is spreading across Virginia -- and the devices are hard to spot

By Terence Mulcahy
|  Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014  |  Updated 3:49 PM EDT
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    A high-tech scam is preying on ATM users, and the scammers' devices are hiding in plain sight.

    Skimming is a process in which a device affixed to an ATM allows criminals to steal your financial data -- and your money. The scam has been particularly prevalent in recent months, with a slew of incidents in Fairfax County and in Leesburg, but the problem exists nationwide.

    Detective Tom Polhemus of Fairfax County Police said that the devices are built by criminals to be small and subtle.

    "The thing to remember is that this is organized crime," he said. "These devices are sophisticated."

    There are steps you can take to keep your debit and credit cards safer. Check out our gallery of skimming devices above and follow our tips below.

    1. Know What to Look For

    Skimmers are small electronic devices that fit over the slot you swipe (or push) your debit and credit cards into, which steal your card details.

    "People really wouldn't see them when they approach an ATM," Polhemus said.

    Some known skimming devices are featured in the gallery above, but if anything seems out of place, unusually bulky, or poorly affixed to the machine, gently tug on it. If it moves or comes away from the ATM, it may be a skimming device.

    Polhemus said that the devices are only temporarily affixed.

    "The battery life of these devices is about two to four hours," he said. "When a few cards have been skimmed, the criminals remove them and move on to the next machine. They are usually only attached with glue or tape."

    He also said that devices have evolved as banks have grown accustomed to the scam.

    "Some banks opted to use a large green ball for their card slot," he said. "The criminals just created a device that was an even larger ball and put that over the top."

    The FBI advises that you check for scratching around the card slot, adhesive tape or glue residue, and if the device can be removed, you should alert bank staff or call 911 immediately.

    2. Look for Hidden Cameras

    Skimming is a two-step process because criminals can also obtain your PIN. This is often done with a pinhole camera hidden on or near an ATM.

    Look for anything that may have a tiny hole or slot for a camera to be placed inside, especially if it's aimed at the keypad. These devices may be stuck to the top or side of the machine, or placed inside light fixtures above it.

    They are also likely to be temporarily affixed, so check any unusual components to see if they move or seem poorly applied.

    Many ATMs will also have security cameras attached to them, and these are usually much more obvious and permanent. If in doubt, check with bank personnel or seek out another machine.

    3. Check the Keypad

    Some criminals have also used keypad overlays instead of cameras to capture customers' PINs. These devices record keystrokes electronically, so check for anything that seems to have been placed over the top of the keypad that moves, seems unusual, or does not match the ATM.

    4. Protect Your PIN

    Always use your hand to shield your PIN as you enter it, and be aware of anyone standing too close who may be attempting to watch. And never write down your PIN down; memorize it.

    5. Know Your Surroundings

    Machines with a lot of customers, especially in tourist areas, are the most likely to be targeted by criminals. One skimming suspect was arrested last year for allegedly targeting hospital ATMs with this scam.

    Look for an ATM that's inside a bank or within the sight of a security camera, where scammers would be less likely to take a risk.

    Be wary of anyone loitering by machines, especially when using an ATM, and don't let strangers help you with supposedly "broken" machines.

    It is not just ATMs that can be compromised. Gas stations that allow customers to pay at the pump are also at risk. Det. Polhemus said that criminals had even targeted vestibules of banks that require customers to swipe their cards.

    He said that scammers have been especially active on holiday weekends and have often been targeting machines on the outside of bank branches. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have more advice on how to stay safe on vacation.

    6. What to Do if You Fall Victim to Fraud

    You are not liable for any fraudulent transactions and, if you report it early, you will get the money back -- but it may take some time.

    You have 60 days upon receiving a statement to report suspicious activity and are protected under federal law by the Truth in Lending Act and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act. The FTC have advice on how to report fraud.

    7. Get to Know Your Bank

    Understand their policies for preventing fraud and their procedures for helping victims. It's also a good idea to understand what your bank's security procedures are and what they are for. The secret questions and multiple passwords might be annoying, but they keep your details safer.

    If you use an ATM regularly and the appearance of the card slot changes, contact bank personnel to alert them.

    8. Check Your Statements Regularly

    Polhemus said that criminals may only use stolen card details infrequently to minimize the chances that the bank will detect unusual transactions. It's important to keep an eye out for anything on your statement that seems unlikely -- or impossible.

    If you don't already use online banking, it's worth considering. Being able to quickly access and search through your statements could help you to identify these transactions and allow you to report them much sooner.

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