ATM Skimming and How to Protect Yourself

Close up of womans hand inserting credit card into cash machine

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ATM skimming is when criminals place a device on the face of an ATM, which appears to be a part of the machine. It’s almost impossible for civilians to know the difference unless they have an eye for security, or the skimmer is of poor quality.

When a skimming device is planted on an ATM, it gathers account data from any cards that are swiped. Those who planted it can then retrieve that data and put it on blank bank cards. Often, criminals will also hide a small pinhole camera in a brochure holder near the ATM in order to extract the victims' pin numbers. All of this allows them to access the funds in their victims' accounts.

Card skimming can happen beyond ATMs. Gas pumps are equally vulnerable to this type of scam, as well as point-of-sale card readers.

What's Fueling ATM Skimming

Skimming is one of the financial industry’s most difficult crimes to protect against. Debit and credit card manufacturer SmartMetric reported $24.26 billion in annual global losses from debit and credit card fraud and electronic crime associated with ATMs in 2018—and these losses continue to grow.

Many of the large data breaches that have occurred over the past few years may have contributed to ATM fraud. When criminals hack databases full of credit and debit card numbers they then use that information to pull cash from the victim's bank account at an ATM.

It’s simple enough to hack into a database and compromise cards and pins. It’s even easier to affix hardware to the face of an ATM machine and do the same. Once the data is compromised, the identity thieves clone cards and turn the data into cash as quickly as possible.

Types of ATM Skimming

There are two common skimming scenarios. In the first one, a device called a “skimmer” is placed on the face of an operational ATM. When a card is swiped, the skimmer records the data on the card, and a camera hidden in a brochure holder or security mirror records the PIN. Usually, money is dispensed and the user is none the wiser.

In the second scenario, a used ATM is rigged to record data and placed in a public area. These ATMs are only semi-operational and do not dispense cash. Users think that they're broken, but they're really just stealing card data. ​

There are a few types of devices that criminals use for ATM skimming:

  • Card reader overlays: These plastic devices fit over the slot where you insert your card. They steal and store your card data when you put your card in them.
  • Hidden cameras: These are usually very tiny and can be placed on or around an ATM to hep thieves keep an eye on the area and capture PINs.
  • PIN-capture overlays: These fake keypads fit over an ATM's actual keypad to capture PINs.
  • ATM faceplates: These overlays fit over the entire ATM faceplate and can contain everything from card readers to keypad overlays to hidden cameras.

How to Protect Yourself

  1. Scrutinize the ATM: This means every ATM, even ones from your bank. You also want to check any of the card sliders like ones at gas stations, etc, especially if you’re using your debit card. If the scanner does not match the color and style of the machine, it might be a skimmer. You should also “shake” the card scanner to see if it feels like there’s something attached to the card reader on the ATM. Also look for loose wires, tiny holes, scratches, tape, or anything else suspicious on the machine.
  2. Cover the keypad when entering your PIN: In order to access your bank accounts, thieves need to have your card number and your PIN. By covering the keypad, you prevent cameras and onlookers from seeing your PIN.
  3. Check your bank and credit card statements often: If someone does get your information, you should notify your bank as soon as possible.
  4. Be choosy: Don’t use general ATMs at bars or restaurants. These are not usually monitored and can be easily tampered with by anyone.