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How to spot a credit card skimmer

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Making a purchase at your favorite retailer or using an ATM should be a secure transaction, but you could be at risk if the card reader you’re using is hiding a credit card skimmer. A credit card skimmer is a device installed on a card reader that collects your credit card information. Scammers use this information to make fraudulent charges to your credit card account.

Credit card skimmers are most commonly found at ATMs and gas stations but can also be seen at retail stores and restaurants.

What is a credit card skimmer?

A credit card skimmer is an illegal device that scammers install on an ATM, POS (point of sale) terminal or gas pump. A credit card skimmer captures your credit card information — scammers then use the data to make online purchases or create fake credit cards to steal from your account. According to the FBI, skimming costs financial institutions and consumers more than $1 billion each year.

How does a credit card skimmer work?

When a card is skimmed, the details of your card are usually stolen using your card’s magnetic strip. Information like your name, card number and expiration date are copied and sent to the scammer. Sometimes scammers use a bluetooth credit card skimmer, which sends information directly to their computer or phone.

Once your information is copied, a scammer might use it in a few ways:

  • Make purchases online or over the phone
  • Create fake credit cards
  • Sell your data for a profit
  • Use your information for identity theft

What does a credit card skimmer look like?

A credit card skimmer is designed to look like a part of the terminal that it’s attached to, though it may appear bulkier.

Some skimmers are an extension inserted into the credit card reader and some are a cover that goes over the reader. This makes them look just like the original card reader, but they may have flaws like buttons that are off-center and difficult to push or a card strip reader that’s at an unusual angle. You can compare the card reader that you’re using to others nearby to see if it looks different.

There are a few variations of skimmers that you may come across:

  • Hidden camera: A hidden camera is typically used with a skimming device to record you typing in your PIN. Cameras are usually concealed somewhere at the front of an ATM or somewhere nearby like a light fixture.
  • Skimmer: A skimmer will usually look like the original card reader in color and texture. Skimmers fit directly over the card reader. A traditional card reader curves inward in shape while skimmers usually curve outward.
  • Keypad overlay: A keypad overlay is a keypad placed directly over the factory-installed keypad. Wiring inside of the fake keypad will store your PIN as you type it in and pass it along to scammers.

How to spot a credit card skimmer

Because credit card skimmers look just like an original credit card reader, they can be hard to spot. A quick scan for tell-tale signs can help you see if a card skimmer is there. Check for alignment issues between the card reader and the panel under it. Scanners are often placed on top of the actual card reader and may stick out at a strange angle.

You can pull on a card reader to see if it easily comes out of place. If any part of a card reader can easily move around, or if the buttons are hard to push, it’s probably been installed by a scammer.

Spotting a credit card skimmer at a gas pump

A credit card skimmer at a gas pump is typically attached to the internal wiring and isn’t visible to the consumer. Skimming devices on a gas pump store data to be downloaded or wirelessly transferred later.

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There are a few ways you can prevent being a victim of a credit card skimmer at the gas pump:

  • Choose a gas pump closer to the store and in view of the attendant. These pumps may be less likely to have a skimmer.
  • Pay inside with an attendant rather than outside at the pump.
  • Run your debit card as a credit card to avoid inputting your PIN, or cover the keypad while entering your PIN.
  • Make sure the pump panel is closed and doesn’t show any signs of tampering. Many gas stations have security seals over the cabinet panel.
  • See if the card reader looks similar to other readers at the gas station.

ATM card skimmers and POS terminal card skimmers

ATM and POS (point of sale) terminal skimmers are usually placed over the original card reader. They often look identical to the card reader itself. An ATM card skimmer may be placed inside the terminal or along exposed cables. Sometimes thieves will even place a camera on an ATM to record you entering your PIN. If anything looks unusual, it’s best to avoid using your card at that specific ATM or POS terminal.

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There are a few ways that you can inspect ATMs or POS terminals for a card skimmer before making a transaction:

  • Look for anything that’s loose, crooked, damaged or scratched
  • Pull at the edges of the keyboard before entering your PIN to make sure it isn’t loose
  • Run your debit card as a credit card to avoid inputting your PIN, or cover the keypad while entering your PIN

What to do if your credit card is skimmed

If your card is skimmed, a thief might make a fake credit card with your information, make purchases online or sell your stolen information. Luckily, fraudulent credit card charges are easier to dispute with a credit card than a debit card. Many credit cards come with a zero liability policy, which means you have no responsibility to pay for fraudulent charges. Once fraud is identified, your issuer will cancel your card, issue a new card and refund the fraudulent charges.

You should report the suspicious activity the moment you realize it by calling the number on the back of your card. In many cases your credit card will proactively alert you if a potential fraudulent charge was made.

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According to the FTC, it’s important to immediately follow up with your bank in writing after you call to report suspicious activity. Send a letter to your credit card issuer, including your account number, the date and time when you noticed your card information was stolen and when you first reported the suspicious activity. Keep a copy of your letter and take notes on your conversations with your bank.

How to avoid credit card skimmers

Inspect the card reader and keypad: If anything looks suspicious, it’s best to avoid using that specific payment terminal and go elsewhere. You should also alert the business of anything you find that’s out of place.

Monitor your credit card activity: Frequently check your credit card statements and your online account. This will help you quickly catch any fraudulent purchases made on your account.

Be aware of which ATMs you use: ATMs located in a well-lit, indoor location are usually less vulnerable targets. It’s also best to use an official bank ATM rather than a nonbank ATM — using an ATM inside of a high-traffic bank may be your best bet. You should also be aware of skimming devices in tourist spots, as these tend to be popular targets.

Try to use cards with chip technology: Fewer devices in the U.S. steal chip data than magnetic strip data. If you’re able to use a contactless payment method like tapping a machine or using an app, you may have even more protection.

Use your credit card: Credit cards have more fraud protection than debit cards. It’s best to use your credit card whenever possible.

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