Skimming: What is it? And how you can protect yourself

Posted On: January 1, 2020

Card Skimming is not new, but the technology that makes it possible is evolving. Would you be able to identify an ATM rigged with skimming devices?

Let’s start with what is Card Skimming actually is.

Skimming occurs when thieves attach devices to ATMs that capture your card number and PIN. While there are several versions of skimmers the basic components are:

  • A card reader attachment or “skimmer”
  • A keypad overlay
  • A hidden video camera

The main component is the skimmer, which is a small device that fits over the card slot or in some cases inside the card slot itself. As you insert your card, the device reads you magnetic strip and records the information as it enters the ATM. Everything functions normally, but your card has now been copied.

The second component is either a keypad overlay or a video camera that captures your PIN (Personal Identification Number). The overlay is often hard to detect. It simply lies on top of the original keypad and records the PIN numbers as you type. Because the pressure is enough to pass through the overlay and engage the real keypad underneath, the transaction can easily go unnoticed. This method guarantees accurate capture of the PIN.

The alternative to the keypad overlay is a tiny video camera hidden somewhere on or near the ATM. The camera records the user as they type their PIN sequence.

The copied or “skimmed” data is then programmed onto bogus blank ATM cards. When matched with the recorded PIN, thieves can now use the fake cards at ATMs to withdraw cash or make purchases. Basic skimmer devices record the copied data on the device itself. This means the thief must return to the ATM to retrieve the skimmer device. Newer skimmer devices have the ability to transmit the copied data wirelessly.

So how do you know if the ATM you are about to use has a skimmer device?

  • Most card skimmers are affixed to the ATM. If the card reader looks different than the rest of the machine, try to jiggle it. If it moves or seems to protrude away from the machine, it may be a skimmer.
  • Look for tiny cameras above or near the keypad. They can be as small as a pin hole. Check for molded pieces of plastic that don’t match the rest of the machine. They could be hiding a camera inside.
  • Does the keypad seem too thick? If you use the same ATM frequently you may notice that the keypad looks or feels different.
  • Look for parts or panels that don’t seem to fit correctly or don’t match the rest of the machine.
  • A quick image search for “card skimmers” on your favorite internet browser will produce hundreds of photos of skimming devices.

How you can avoid skimmers.

  • Frequent the same ATM when you need cash. The more often you use it, the more likely you are to notice when something seems wrong.
  • Use your hand to cover your keystrokes as you type your PIN sequence. While this will make it difficult for a camera to capture your number, you may still be vulnerable to a keypad overlay.
  • Beware of unbranded ATMs when possible. Dummy ATMs can be set up in high traffic areas where cash is needed quickly. You may scan your card and enter your PIN only to get an error message that the machine is not working properly. Odds are you just got “Skimmed”.
  • Use ATMs in trusted places such as Banks & stores where surveillance cameras are present and might deter a thief trying to place a skimmer.

Card Skimming is relatively cheap and has a high payoff, so it is likely going to be around for a while. But, now you know what to look for and can avoid being skimmed.