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Beware Credit Card Skimmers and How to Spot Them

Talk about serendipitous. I’ve been planning today’s post on credit card and ATM “skimmers” (jerry-rigged little devices criminals use to steal your card numbers), and yesterday my brother tells me he spotted one of these suckers at a rest area on the New York Thruway. He alerted managers, who called the cops, who confirmed it was a skimmer. It just proves that skimmers are a real threat out there. Skimmers give fraudsters easy access to unwitting victims’ credit and debit card numbers—even PINs. Here’s what you need to know to avoid these nasty things.

How Skimmers Work

There are two big ways criminals use credit card skimmers to steal your information:

  • They stealthfully install a skimmer on an ATM or self-serve kiosk and capture your card information when you swipe your card at the kiosk. Sometimes the machine still works, and you never know anything is wrong. Sometimes the skimmer disables the machine, but you’ll just assume it’s out of order and move on.
  • Or, they get a hold of your credit card and skim your card manually (an easy racket for an unscrupulous waiter who could do this when you hand over your card to pay the bill).

Unless you catch your server in the act of swiping your card against his or her body (they often keep skimmers hidden under clothing), you probably won’t know your card has been compromised this way until fraudulent charges appear on your statement. Fortunately, however, practicing a little vigilance can help you spot and avoid skimmers that are installed on self-service kiosks and ATMs.

How to Spot Skimmers

Credit card skimmers look just like the machines that merchants and ATMs use to legitimately swipe our plastic. Skimmers can come in all shapes and sizes. Some are so professional looking you might not be able to tell them apart from a real credit card machine; others (like the one my brother spotted) are sketchtastically homemade.

At ATMs or self-serve kiosks, high-quality skimmers may be attached on the outside of the legitimate card slot (so you put your card through both without realizing it). Lower-grade skimmers are attached in a location that’s not the actual credit card slot and just rely on you to notice the skimmer first and swipe your card through it. (Or the thieves may have disabled or covered up the legitimate card slot).

One final note: thieves that install skimmers on ATMs may also install a tiny camera that will attempt to record your PIN as you enter it. So it’s a good habit to always cover the keypad with your free hand as you punch in your numbers.

Where Can Skimmers Be Found?

  • Automated teller machines (ATMs)
  • Gas pumps
  • Public transit ticket machines
  • Movie theater ticket kiosks
  • Red Box DVD rental machines

What To Do If You Find A Skimmer

If you suspect you’ve found a skimmer, call local police at once and notify the owners of the machine. If you fear you’ve used a skimmer, call your bank or credit card company and let them know. You and your bank can decide to cancel your card and replace it or simply keep an eye on your statement for any fraudulent activity.

Have you ever come across a skimmer? Have you had credit card details stolen from a skimmer? Please share your story!

Note: Next week, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Council of Better Business Bureaus will promote “National Protect Your Identity Week”. This article is the second in a series of four posts on ways you can protect your identity and financial information.

Published or updated on October 14, 2009

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


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  1. Jenna says:

    I live in Florida. My bank had alerted me asking if I had spent so much in gas at a station in Michigan. Of course I didn’t because I live in Florida. They immediatley called to notify me that they were going to cancel my card and issue a new one. If it wasn’t for them who knows how much they could of gotten out of my account. It’s crazy. So now I usually pay cash for gas and when eating out.. No one can be trusted today. I also purchased a titanium credit card holder. Anyone can have these little devices and be next to you that detects your credit card information..

  2. Betty Jenkins says:

    What about these devises that be used just by walking past someone with a credit card. Is there a way to physically hide your credit card so no one can walk past you and get your number?

    • Ritchie says:

      If you have a credit card with RFID (the type you wave or tap at the terminal when you make a purchase), then you can simply wrap a piece of aluminum foil around the card while it’s in your purse or pocketbook. Regular credit cards are not susceptible this this kind of skimming.

  3. Ty says:

    Happened to my husband just a few weeks ago! Our bank’s fraud protection unit noticed and alerted us … thousands of dollars later. Luckily, the money was insured and we got it back!

  4. The one place that seems the hardest for me to keep an eye out for a skimmer is definitely in restaurants when the waiter or waitress takes the card in the back to charge the card. I am not really overly concerned because most credit cards nowadays have very aggressive fraud protection but still it is somewhat disconcerting when you think about it.

  5. This is a wonderful article.
    Pertol Pumps and certain Restaurants are the high vigilant places to watch out these fellows.

    Wisdom Credit Cards

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