Normally I don’t like to alarm people with statistics, but it’s hard to look away from this one.
The number of ATMs compromised by would-be thieves increased by a whopping 546% from 2014 to 2015, according to the FICO Card Alert Service, which monitors hundreds of thousands of ATMs across the country.
Even more: ATMs account for 94% of security breaches, according to a 2016 report by Verizon Enterprises.
A quick Google news search adds context to these numbers with headlines.
“ATM ‘skimmer’ devices located around Tampa Bay, suspect sought.”
“Tourist finds expertly crafted ATM skimmer while on vacation.”
“Man arrested in Boca Raton stole more than $89K using ATM skimmers, police say.”
What’s ATM Skimming?
Skimming is an increasingly common means of stealing credit and debit card information. Thieves use hidden electronics to harvest personal information and data from your card.
These hidden electronics include — but aren’t limited to — counterfeit card readers installed over an ATM’s real card reader, keypad overlays to pick up your PIN and even small cameras.
Although ATMs are the most common targets when it comes to skimming, security experts say you’re vulnerable wherever you use your card.
“Skimming usually occurs at ATMs, but it can happen anywhere you’re swiping your card,” says David Tente, executive director of the ATM Industry Association’s U.S. chapter. That includes gas stations and grocery stores.
Perhaps the most frightening part of skimming is you’ll still be able to carry out your transaction without even knowing your information has just been stolen
Then, armed with your information, thieves can begin making purchases. The average loss per card is about $600, FICO vice president T. J. Horan told the New York Times.
How to Protect Yourself From ATM Skimming
Once you’re aware of skimming — and how and where it might occur — you can hold tight to these cautionary rules of thumb.
Consider When and Where You Swipe Your Card.
If you can, avoid using ATMs or making transactions in places that don’t get a lot of traffic.
Because skimmers typically install their devices manually (unless they’re savvy with Bluetooth), they tend to operate in places with less traffic.
They also tend to operate on the weekends when banks are closed. They’ll return to fetch the device before they open again on Monday.
Your best bet is making your transactions at an ATM inside the bank near a teller. Or consider using the ATM inside your grocery store — the one near a crop of registers.
Take Notice of Your Surroundings.
Always assume someone is looking over your shoulder. Use your hand or a piece of paper to cover your motions as you type in your PIN.
“Usually, the cameras are mounted from above the keypad,” Tente says.
Even if a skimming device is attached to the card reader, a thief has a harder time accessing your account without a PIN. Tente points out they can still make online purchases without a problem, though.
Also, be aware of any nearby brochure racks stacked with fliers, which can function as easy hiding places for cameras.
Look for Abnormalities on the Machine.
The easiest way to do this is to go to a spot with multiple machines and make a quick comparison. You’ll be able to observe the card reader is flashing on one but not the other, for example. Or you’ll notice the card reader is blue on one but yellow on the other.
If this isn’t possible, Tente suggests going to the same machine each time you make a transaction so you can pick up any differences in appearance.
If neither of these options are possible, consider these tips:
Look for anything that appears odd, including mismatched colors, materials and even graphics that aren’t correctly aligned.
Wiggle everything, especially the card reader and the keypad. Many skimmers use a PIN-snatching overlay on the keypad.
Look for pinholes or obstructions near the speakers, along the screen and especially near the card reader and keypad.
And contrary to other news reports, your EMV chip card won’t prevent skimming.
“Any chip card is still going to have a magnetic strip on it,” Tente says. “It’s still possible to skim the strip, and you’re still using a PIN. Plus, EMV cards prevent counterfeit cards, but it costs more to counterfeit a card than it does to skim one.”
What to Do If You Detect Skimming
Don’t use the ATM or card reader, and immediately report your suspicions to the bank, gas station or store. Usually an ATM has a phone number on it, so call that number as well.
If you’ve already carried out the transaction, keep an eye on your bank account.
“Chances are, if your card is skimmed, it could very well be used by someone across the country or even world,” Tente says.
“It’s just a matter of keeping an eye on your account. Don’t wait three or four months to check it.”
Under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, if you report stolen funds within 60 days, you aren’t liable. Even more, many banks claim to fully reimburse funds lost due to any type of fraud.
Your Turn: Have you ever been a victim of ATM skimming? How did you cope with it?
Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. After recently completing grad school, she focuses her time and energy on saving money — and surviving the move back in with her parents.