Card Skimmer Scams Are on the Rise – Here’s How to Avoid Them

Card skimming is a devious, clever, and increasingly common form of criminal activity. The latest data from FICO showed a 70% rise in the amount of credit and debit cards being compromised in the past year.

Skimmers are tiny devices that can be installed on machines that process credit and debit card payments – anywhere you swipe a credit or debit card, such as an ATM or a gas station pump. Skimming devices read your card information as you swipe it, and they’re often used in conjunction with hidden cameras that can record your PIN number.

Tips for Staying Safe

Colleen Tressler, a consumer education specialist at the Federal Trade Commission, says staying safe comes down to being vigilant, as it’s not always easy to spot tampering. Tressler notes that “skimmers are nothing new, but technology has made them smaller and harder to find.” Thankfully, harder to find does not mean impossible.

Here are some things you should do to stay safe when you’re paying with a card or using an ATM. In compiling this set of tips, I enlisted the help of Mason Wilder, a research specialist at the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.

  • “Watch out for loose or bulky card readers, especially if they look different from the other gas pumps at the station, as well as any signs that a machine may have been tampered with,” Wilder says. “Signs include broken safety seals on panels, loose panels, or pieces that don’t match the rest of the machine.”
  • If your card doesn’t slide nicely into the machine, that is a big red flag.
  • Avoid third-party ATMs, meaning the ones that are not branded by a major national bank. These are just slightly less vulnerable than gas stations.
  • Try to avoid gas stations and ATMs that are shoddily maintained. That’s a sign that the owner probably isn’t keeping the closest eye on the card readers. As usual, good ol’ common sense rules the day.
  • Try to use machines that are close to the main building of the business. ATMs that are in dark spots or around corners are more likely to be targeted by fraudsters.
  • If you’re at all wary, use cash instead of a card. “The best way to avoid falling victim to a skimmer scam, anywhere, is to just use cash. If you can’t do that, pay inside the station with a credit card,” Wilder says. “Try to plan ahead in order to avoid situations where you have no choice but to use a risky ATM or gas pump.”
  • Be vigilant about watching your bank account activity. Even if you take every precaution, you might get burned. If you notice any weird transactions on your bank statement, immediately cancel the card and talk to your bank.

Be Especially Wary at the Pump

Recently, banks have adopted stricter regulations in order to safeguard consumers. For instance, the new “chip” cards that have been rolling out are harder to scam. Recent laws also required banks to replace their older, more hack-prone ATM terminals with machines that accept chip readers. While any card with a magnetic strip is still vulnerable, chip cards are a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, gas stations are behind the curve when it comes to updating their technology. They’re facing the same regulations as banks, but the law that requires them to update their technology doesn’t go into effect until 2020. That means you have to be extra vigilant when filling up, and it’s why fraud experts like Eva Velazquez of the Identity Theft Resource Center are calling them “one of the last bastions for card thieves.”

The authorities are doing their best to crack down on this activity. Florida recently did a statewide sweep of all their gas stations, and they removed 150 different skimmers. But, much like the fight against malicious computer malware, new ways of avoiding detection are constantly being developed. We can’t rely on the authorities to completely root out the problem, as there is too much money at stake for the thieves. As Velazquez notes, “Skimming is lucrative — people wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.”

(Chalk up another victory for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to live without a car. All you drivers out there need to be extra vigilant.)

Fighting Fire With Fire

The technology scammers rely on keeps getting better. Lately they’ve taken to installing Bluetooth devices on the machines, which can then transmit your card information and PIN number via SMS text to any location in the world. This is all done instantly and wirelessly, so that the criminal never has to return to the machine to retrieve anything.

One way to avoid this scam is to use advanced technology of your own. If you have a smartphone, you can now download programs such as the Skimmer Scanner app, which allow you to detect if a card reader has had an illegal Bluetooth reader installed. For now there’s only an Android version, but an iPhone version is soon to follow.

It’s an endless game of whack-a-mole trying to spot and disarm card skimmers. But if you’re living in the modern world, it’s the new normal. You might as well carry your metaphorical mallet and be ready to fight back.

Summing Up

It’s a major headache to be a victim of fraud. When the stakes are this high, we can all stand to be a little more careful. If we check for tampering, use machines that are well maintained, and use cash if we notice anything suspicious, it will go a long way toward safeguarding us from skimmer fraud.

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