ATM skimming is a new crime opportunity that’s got thieves salivating at the chance to score your bank and credit card numbers. Skimming devices are usually undetectable and blend into the ATM display, so most people are unaware of what’s happening until it’s too late. Criminals set up a phony card reader over the existing reader built into the machine. When you swipe your card, the card is read first by the skimmer before entering the machine. The critical part of this crime is obtaining your PIN code. Suspects either place a false keypad over the machine’s keys or install a temporary camera that can record your PIN as you type it in.
“You think you’ve just taken care of a regular errand, getting cash from the ATM or paying for gas at the pump, but you just gave these thieves everything they need to get into your account,” said Chuck Handwork, a Brentwood resident and ATM system specialist who tracks skimming crimes and looks for ways to combat the problem. “They take your information and upload it to the magnetic strip of a new card – and that’s all there is to it. They can either keep the cards for themselves or sell them. It’s scary how easy it is for them to steal your information.”
The FBI and U.S. Secret Service have been following skimming scams since 2005. But skimmers are getting more creative and there appears to be no way to completely shut down their operation. Skimmers are popular among Eurasian criminals, who install devices to standalone ATMs in well-populated areas such as malls and airports where there’s little security oversight for the devices. Big cities with high-trafficked tourist areas are the hot spots for now, but that doesn’t mean something like this can’t happen in East County.
There have been reports of skimmers in Brentwood and Antioch. Brentwood resident Shawn R., who asked that The Press not use his last name, believes his credit card was skimmed at a local gas station. But he was fortunate. Before the thieves could do any significant damage to his account, his credit card authorization company called to ask about an unusual charge.
“I found out I was scammed when the credit card authorization company, contracted through the bank, called me late one night to ask me what purchases I had made that day,” Shawn said. “One of the purchases was at a Walmart in Houston, Texas, where I clearly was not. The next morning I called the bank, told them what happened and ordered a new card. They sent me a claim form to file in order to get my money back from the fraudulent purchase.”
Since getting victimized by skimmers, Shawn is more vigilant of where he swipes his credit cards. He checks card readers to see if any parts are loose and looks for anything that might be housing a hidden camera.
Handwork said Shawn’s approach is one of the best ways people can protect themselves against skimmers. If you use an ATM device – whether at the bank, gas station or even renting a movie from Redbox – take a moment to inspect the machine. Skimming devices are typically attached with double-face tape, so make sure the keypad and card reader are securely in place. Look for glue residue that might indicate the machine has been tampered with. Also take stock of your surroundings. Does anything seem out of the ordinary? Handwork said thieves like to hide cameras in phony brochure boxes placed either close to the keypad or at shoulder level to scan the keypad from above. Even if everything meets your approval, as an additional safeguard make sure to cover the keypad with your hand as you enter your PIN.
Last month, three men were arrested in Sacramento for operating a suspected skimming ring. Sacramento police, in partnership with the FBI and the San Joaquin Sheriff’s Department, uncovered hundreds of counterfeit California ID cards, counterfeit credit cards plus an assortment of skimming devices and files containing thousands of stolen credit card numbers.
Also last month, in Washington, D.C., ATM skimmers were found at two local hospitals, one near a gift shop at the Inova Fairfax Hospital; the other at an ATM adjacent to the cafeteria at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital. There are no suspects in the case. The skimming was discovered because a hospital employee at the Inova Fairfax Hospital noticed that the card reader seemed shaky when she went to slide in her card. When she took a closer look and gave the machine a gentle tug, she dislodged the fake card reader.
“People need to take the time to look over the machine to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with,” Handwork said. “If you want to skip the line at the bank and use an ATM, you need to know that there’s a risk. The parking garage, the gas station, the vending machine at the mall – you need to be on the lookout for people trying to take advantage of your desire for convenience.”
Handwork said skimmers can’t be stopped until the magnetic strip is removed from plastic cards. Some bank cards have transitioned to smart cards that contain a microchip, but that technology will not be mandatory in the United States for a few more years.
For more information about how to spot skimmers and protect yourself from identity theft, visit www.fbi.gov/scams-safety/e-scams.