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5 ways to protect your money from credit card skimmers

Brittany Jones-Cooper
Read this before you use an another ATM.
Read this before you use an another ATM.

Morgan Herbener, a college student in the Washington, DC, area, was traveling through Heathrow Airport in London in March on her way to an internship. She needed some local currency, so she stopped at an ATM in the airport to grab some cash.

A few days later she received a surprise notification from her bank asking if she had just withdrawn $1,000 — she hadn’t.

“I looked at my bank account and $1,000 was just gone. It almost wiped out my account,” she told Yahoo Finance.

Herbener’s information had been skimmed, a scam where thieves steal debit card information via a device hidden on or inside of the machine’s card reader.

According to FICO, the credit-scoring company which also monitors hundreds of thousands of ATMs in the US, the number of ATMs compromised by criminals rose 546% from 2015 to 2016.

In the last week alone, skimmers have been discovered in Auora, Colo.; Crafton, Penn.; and Southhampton, NY. On May 24, officials in Rock Hill, NC, found a skimmer responsible for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from about 720 customers. On the same day, police in Charlotte, NC, said that a skimmer on an ATM compromised nearly 1,000 accounts.

Jim Stickley, a cybersecurity expert, says that credit card skimming hit a high about five years ago, but has since slowed as banks developed new technology to thwart criminals. However, he has seen resurgence with the growing popularity of 3D printers.

“3D printing has made it so easy because now criminals can make their skimmer fit perfectly on the ATM,” Stickley told Yahoo Finance.

To make matters worse, Stickley revealed that many criminals now use a skimmer insert that actually fits inside the ATM machine. These internal skimmers are flat and inserted through the credit card slot. When you slide your card inside the machine, the skimmer steals your information without your knowledge.

While chip technology could help thwart this type of skimming, its slow implementation has made it pretty much useless in the fight against criminals. “A lot of chip cards still have the magnetic strip on the back, and most ATMs still read the mag strip, so it’s kind of irrelevant,” Stickley said.

Criminals are getting more sophisticated every day, so their skimming methods are constantly evolving. Still, Stickley offers a few tips on preventing theft.

Use ATMs with sideways scanners

The ActivEdge card reader prevents skimming.
The ActivEdge card reader prevents skimming.

The company Diebold Nixdorf manufactures ATMs equipped with an ActivEdge card reader to prevent theft. Typically, customers insert their cards vertically. With these machines, the card is inserted horizontally (putting the long edge of the card into the machine), making them more resistant to skimmers.

“ActivEdge prevents all known forms of ATM fraud such as external skimming, internal skimming, USB sniffing, device substitution, card trapping and fishing,” said Renee Murphy, spokeswoman for Diebold Nixdorf .

These readers aren’t commonplace just yet, but Diebold Nixdorf currently has more than 7,000 ActivEdge card readers installed in machines across the US.

Pat down the ATM

Before you insert your card into the machine, feel around the ATM to make sure that nothing seems out of place. Try to jiggle the plastic around the card slot and run your fingers along the different edges. If something is jutting out or feels shaky, there’s a good chance something is awry.

In some cases, criminals will also put a fake keyboard over the existing one on the ATM. This allows them to record your PIN number, which they can use to access the account after skimming your card. To prevent this, make sure you run your fingers around the edges of the keyboard as well, and use another machine if it feels unstable.

Be skeptical of outdoor ATMs

There’s no real way to know which ATMs will be targeted, but odds are more favorable at an ATM that isn’t being watched. According to Stickley, machines inside gas stations might be less of a target because they are are usually in the eyesight of a cashier. Meanwhile, machines outside of a bank are often left unattended and therefore more vulnerable to thieves.

Protect your PIN

The best way to protect your money is to cover the keypad when entering your PIN.

Some skimmers place a pinhole camera above the keyboard to record your PIN. Take precautions when entering your number by covering your keystrokes with your free hand. The camera is so small that most people won’t see it, so covering the keypad is the best way to prevent theft.

“It may feel dorky if there is no one around, but it is the simplest way to protect your account,” says Stickley.

Protect your security code

Once your card is skimmed, the criminal may need your security code to make online purchases. On Visa cards, this three-digit number is located on the back. With American Express, the four-digit security code is located on the front of the card. To prevent someone from going on a shopping spree with your money, try to block the security code with your finger as you swipe your card.

Your money will be refunded

The reality is, even if you take all these precautions, you could still get skimmed. If you find you your card information has been stolen, it’s important to contact your bank immediately. Thanks to the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, you won’t be liable for funds stolen from your account if it’s reported within 60 days. So don’t wait!

The caveat is that it may take the bank a few days to investigate the theft and refund your money, so you may have to use a credit card for purchases until that happens.

For Herbener, the stolen money was eventually refunded during her trip, but she is now a lot more suspicious of the ATMs she uses.

“I’m more cautious with my money when traveling and I definitely won’t use an ATM at an airport for a while,” she said.

Brittany is a reporter at Yahoo Finance.

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