One of the more successful tools of 21st century crooks is the skimmer. Thieves attach them to ATMs, gas pumps and other places people swipe their credit and debit cards. Once in place, this sneaky bit of electronics steals the magnetic strip information from your card.
The thieves use this information to clone your card, and once they have a clone, they can drain your bank account, or run up huge bills and trash your credit before you even know it. That's one reason credit card companies and stores are switching to EMV cards, or "chip" cards, but it will take a while before every retailer supports them, which leaves you vulnerable.
How bad is skimming?
Using skimmers, thieves have stolen untold millions of dollars. Last year, four men were arrested for allegedly stealing $2.1 million using skimmers at gas stations across the South.
t doesn't help that skimmers are available for sale to anyone who wants to buy them, so they can show up anywhere. Just glancing at the news for the last few months shows that skimmers were found at dozens of local gas stations in Detroit, St. Louis, various sites in Cincinnati, cities in Florida and ATMs at banks around the country. According to the New York Police Department, ATM skimmer use has tripled in Queens this year.
If you had any doubts, skimmers are out there and can be anywhere. So, how do you spot a skimmer before it snags your information? Here's what you need to look for.
An overlay skimmer is one that fits over the card reader slot of an ATM or gas pump. For old or low-quality overlay skimmers, there are a few things you can look for.
he skimmer is usually modeled, or in some cases 3-D printed, to look like the part it's covering. However, it might not be the same quality or color as the rest of the machine. Maybe it's protruding a bit too far or isn't installed straight. If it looks like it doesn't quite fit or is loose, then that's a possible warning.
You can also look around for additions to the machine that could hide a camera pointed at the keypad. This is often how crooks get your PIN. It might be installed on the ATM, or even on the wall above it. Hackers have hidden cameras in fake outlets, lights and other things that wouldn't immediately catch your attention.
For these types of skimmers, it's actually fairly easy to defeat them. Simply cover your hand when you're typing in your PIN and the crooks won't have all the information they need to clone your card.
Unfortunately for us, hackers quickly spotted the weaknesses of skimmers and have come up with options that are more difficult to detect. Some are actually impossible for you to catch.
A good example comes from Brazil. It's an overlay skimmer, but instead of overlaying the card reader, the entire front of the ATM is fake.
The gas station thieves I told you about earlier hid their skimmers inside the pumps. The skimmers were even equipped with Bluetooth so the thieves could drive by and extract the collected numbers and PINs wirelessly.
Another type of skimmer is thin enough that it fits right inside the ATM or gas pump's card reader slot. There's no external sign it's there, but it's busy swiping your info.
Unscrupulous employees of a restaurant or store might have handheld skimmers that you'll never see. Or they might put out POS terminals that are really skimmers in disguise; and they'll even print out a receipt.
Not many crooks have these advanced skimmers yet, but they'll get less expensive and more widespread in a few years. Fortunately, banks and retailers are switching over to EMV cards that have a chip instead of a magnetic stripe. Learn how these cards keep you safe, and why they still aren't as safe as they could be.
Mobile payment options are also becoming more popular and don't have the security flaws of traditional cards.
In the meantime, you should try avoiding swiping your debit card in the places most likely to have skimmers: gas stations, restaurants, and online.
You should also set up text alerts on your cards so you know when you or anyone else swipes them. You can tell right away if hackers have stolen your information.
Adapted from posting by Kim Komando for usatoday.com