Scam alert: Card Skimming
If you've been trying to keep up with the warnings about all the methods cyber thieves use to nab their victims' personal and financial information, you may be familiar with vishing, phishing, and smishing. That's the lingo for fraud conducted via phone calls, emails, and text messages, respectively.
But did you know that everyday actions like withdrawing money from an ATM or paying for gasoline with your credit or debit card can also put you at risk?
Here's another term to add to your financial safety and security vocabulary: card skimming. Read on to learn more about how it works and what you can do to protect your personal identity and your money from this threat.
What is card skimming?
Card skimming is a type of cyber crime in which thieves steal credit or debit card data that's transmitted when people swipe their cards. The most common way criminals capture the data is by secretly inserting a device called a skimmer into an ATM or retail card reader. Any location where debit or credit card transactions take place at non-chip-enabled terminals is especially vulnerable.
The criminals can then sell the data or use it to make purchases online, apply for credit in your name, or make fake credit cards.
Did you know? A gas station card reader that wiggles or appears unstable may have a skimmer on it.
How do I spot a skimmer?
Being extra observant can help keep you from becoming a victim of card skimming. For example, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends inspecting the pump panel before you insert your credit card1 to make sure the panel hasn't been tampered with. Many gas stations now put security seals — often about the size and shape of a large plastic bandage — over one edge of the pump panels. If one of these thin, sticky labels is broken, or shows a warning like “void," that's an indication that the panel has been opened and may have been tampered with.
Another tip from the FTC is to check out the card reader, noticing whether it looks different from others at the station. You could even try to wiggle it. “If it moves, report it to the attendant," the FTC advises. “Then use a different pump."
Most card skimmers use Bluetooth to transmit stolen data,2 as CNET notes. If you have an Android cell phone, there's a handy app from SparkFun Electronics3 that can detect a skimmer's Bluetooth signal. You can download the app to your mobile phone from the Google Play store. There's no iPhone version currently available.
What else can I do to protect myself?
Here are some good practices to follow:
- When possible, the FTC advises that you run your debit card as a credit purchase instead of entering a PIN like you do with a debit transaction.
- If you must use a PIN, use your hand to cover the keypad so your entry can't be recorded. Besides using a skimming device, some scammers insert a tiny pinhole camera above the keypad area.
- Monitor your credit card and bank accounts regularly for unauthorized charges or withdrawals. Many banks allow you to set up card alerts that go straight to your phone or email inbox when certain types of transactions occur.
What if I think my card has been compromised?
Report any suspicious activity on your card to your bank or card issuer. The FTC also recommends that you consider placing a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit report. That way, businesses must confirm your identity before approving a credit application in your name — an extra layer of protection against a card skimmer trying to use your stolen data this way. If you think you've seen a card skimmer in use, report it to the FTC.4
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to fight card skimming is to pay attention — to the places where you use your cards, to the monthly statements showing your card activity, and to any incorrect or unexpected items in your credit report. Being alert won't stop cyber criminals from trying to steal your data and profit from it, but it can make it much harder for them to succeed.
Important Disclosure Information
This content is general in nature and does not constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment advice. You are encouraged to consult with competent legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment professionals based on your specific circumstances. We do not make any warranties as to accuracy or completeness of this information, do not endorse any third-party companies, products, or services described here, and take no liability for your use of this information.
- Federal Trade Commission, "Watch out for card skimmers at the gas pump," accessed April 21, 2022. Back
- Credit card thieves are getting smarter. You can, too." CNET, https://www.cnet.com/how-to/credit-card-skimmers-thieves-are-getting-smarter-you-can-too-hacker/, April 4, 2019, accessed June 6, 2019 Back
- "Gas Pump Skimmers," SparkFun Electronics, https://learn.sparkfun.com/tutorials/gas-pump-skimmers/all, accessed June 11, 2019. Back
- “FTC Complaint Assistant," Federal Trade Commission, https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#crnt&panel1-1, accessed June 12, 2019. Back
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