10 Tips to Save You from an ATM Skimmer

By Paul Michael on 7 April 2010 (Updated 6 April 2011) 12 comments
Photo: angusf

If you don’t yet know the term “skimmer,” put it in your vocabulary. The skimmer is becoming more and more widespread, and most of us will, sooner or later, come into contact with one. If you don’t have your wits about you, it could cost you a bunch of cash.

As technology gets more advanced, so do the crooks trying to take advantage of it. And, in turn, us. The ATM has always been a prime piece of real estate for thieves. You’re exposed, you’re handling money, and you have your back to the world. But it’s a dangerous game for criminals to play, as they too are exposed and risk being caught, or being seen.

These days, it’s far better to use those advances in technology to do the dirty work for them. The skimmer is the direct result of it.

A skimmer is usually composed of two sections. The first attaches to the card slot, usually covering it completely. The second is a camera, which can be very close to the card slot or some distance away, at the top of the ATM. The card reader records the electronic data from your ATM card, which the thief can use to make an exact copy of it. The camera is there to record your PIN. Whichever one the thief employs, they are not impossible to spot. In fact, some are downright clumsy. But, just like fake money, you need to be aware at all times.

Below is a picture of a typical skimming device. There are hundreds of different varieties out there, made to match different machines.

Photo courtesy of Brian Krebs. For more photos, check out these two additional posts, here and here, from Krebs on Security.

As you can see, it can be quite convincing. To be fair, some are fairly sketchy, others have been molded professionally and look very good. But they never look perfect (at least, not yet) and that’s something you have on your side. But what you also need is some basic, honest-to-goodness suspicion. Remember, this is your money and you should never take any ATM at face value. Here are some tips I’ve collected from various news sources, both local and national (CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX), and sites including Lifehacker, The Consumerist, Boing Boing, eHow, and Gothamist.

(What’s even more disturbing is that when I typed in ATM Skimmer, Google tried to finish the sentence with “for sale,” meaning an AWFUL LOT of people out there are trying to buy them. They’re available for as little as $2000, and I could buy one right now. Google also returned results on how to make an ATM skimmer, which I am not going to print here, obviously. But with the internet giving thieves access to all the information they’d ever need from the comfort of home, you need to double the guard.)

1. Trust your instincts.

If anything, anything at all, looks out of place on an ATM, don’t use it. If you see a wire poking out, or the plastic on the card reader doesn’t quite match, or there appears to be some unusual wear and tear around the card slot, walk away. It could be fine, but why take a risk?

2. Look for mirrors, leaflet holders or anything else around the ATM.

The machine should be free from anything like that, so add-ons are another huge red flag. They hide cameras behind these devices.

3. Guard your PIN carefully.

As most skimmers require two pieces of information from you, the PIN is something you can at least stop them from getting. You may seem a little paranoid to anyone waiting in line behind you, but who cares? Just cover your actions by cupping one hand over the numbers as your other hand enters them. It’s rudimentary but it works.

4. Take advantage of the debit card “cash back” feature.

When you’re running low on cash, and a grocery or convenience store will give you cash back if you pay for your purchase with a debit card. Simply hit the amount of cash you need. It’s free, saving you the $2-$3 ATM fee, and it’s safer.

5. Become a creature of habit and use the same ATM each time.

This won’t protect you from encountering a skimmer, but you’re much more likely to notice something fishy if you are familiar with the machine.

6. Look for ATMs with video surveillance.

These machines have extra security and this additional level of protection deters thieves from installing the skimming devices.

7. Beware of ATMs that are off the beaten track.

The thief will have more opportunity to install a skimmer on a machine that’s out of the way. If you can, use an ATM inside the branch — these are almost impossible to manipulate. The portable ATMs, like you find in gas stations, are also very easy to mess with. I stay away from them unless I have no alternatives.

8. Don’t be afraid to poke and prod the ATM.

If something looks odd, investigate. These skimming devices are designed to be removed easily an quickly. If the thief can take it off, so can you.

9. NEVER use an ATM if someone is offering to help you with it.

That may seem really obvious, but thieves can dress as technicians, bank tellers, or pose as another customer. Imagine an old lady asking for help, maybe asking if she can see how you use the machine so that she knows what to do. Or a guy in a very official uniform telling you the machine has just been cleaned, inspected, or refilled. These are all signs that you should walk away.

10. Finally, if you do suspect something, let the local branch, gas station, or store know.

It may be a false alarm, but you could prevent someone being ripped off who isn’t as vigilant as you are.

Snopes also has some great information on ATM skimmers. And The Consumerist offers the following pdf that outlines many more skimmers and the ways you can look out for them. I advise you all to read it and pass on the information in it, and this article.

Please, be careful, and if in doubt, walk away.

Additional photo credit: Brian Krebs
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Guest's picture

Wow, who knew these skimmers could look so authentic? And who knew you could find helpful articles on Google showing you how to make these items.

Glad I saw this and will now be on the lookout when I use my ATM.

Guest's picture
Pierre Phaneuf

I had my ATM card cloned just the once, but it was in a branch! It was on a weekend, and whatever they did prevented the ATM from working, as it rejected me card as unreadable right away. Thankfully, the branch noticed the next day and called everyone who used the other ATM (there was two, I just dismissed the first as defective and went to the second).

Guest's picture
DEE

WOW, THIS IS REALLY EYE OPENING. I WILL BE MORE WATCHFUL IN THE FUTURE. THANKS FOR THE POST.

Guest's picture
JayCee

I have seen this stuff for many months so it is nothing new. I mentioned it to a bank clerk one day and his advice: If the ATM card slot is the type that sticks out AT ALL (many are flush with the machine and are safe) "Grab it in your hand and pull HARD while trying to twist it. If it's a skimmer it will very likely come off. Call 911 promptly as the owner of the skimmer may be near by and will want his device back if he notices you taking it.

Guest's picture
Adam

RedBox has a warning about these on their website. That's where I first heard of it. They have taken steps to make it difficult to add a skimmer to their machines.

Guest's picture
JDW

We had a huge scam here in Windsor. They actually replaced the debit card readers at two fast food restaurants. They didn't need cameras because they were capturing the PINs with Blue Tooth technology. The bad guy was sitting out in the parking lot apparently. I live in Ontario, the crooks in Quebec.
They went home to Quebec. They waited two or three weeks, cloned the cards, handed them out to a number of people and synchronized when they hit the bank ATMs to withdraw the money. That way, all the money got taken before the banks realized that there is an unusual amount of activity going on regarding bank accounts in Ontario being accessed in Quebec.
The crooks just keep getting more sophisticated. I'm trying to use cash as much as possible.

Guest's picture
Brian

I would also say that probably the worst place to use one is at a gas station, especially a low traffic gas station. The only people watching these are the reps from Diebold, etc. who come out to change the paper or add money when the ATM alerts them for maintenance.

Probably the safest place to use an atm? The casino! As a bank employee, I happen to know that all of the atm's we have in casinos are serviced at least twice daily due to the high volume of cash being withdrawn. Plus the casino employees watch the atm's for any sign of trouble, because they want to keep people playing, and to play, you gotta have money.

Of course, using it at the casino might not be too safe for your bank account in other ways. :)

Guest's picture
Manny

Thanks for posting the ATM Skimmer pictures. At least your readers have an idea how it looks like.

Guest's picture

Thankful for the post. Very liked this article!

Guest's picture
Don Antonio

hey paul, i will like to know more if u don't mind. (donantoniodesilva@yahoo.com)

Guest's picture

This article provides a very significant issue on ATM skimmers. The tips are essential tools in order to prevent further damages that may be caused by ignorance on this kind of tricks. Money that is worked hard are very painful to let go especially with this kind of dirty misdoings. It's important to stay attentive and be vigilant all the time.

Guest's picture

Thank you for your post.If you have more information then share with us.