Your IP: Unknown · Your Status: ProtectedUnprotectedUnknown

Skip to main content

How to spot a credit card skimmer

Credit card skimmers are fraudulent devices that can steal credit or debit card credentials and cause huge financial harm. This article explains how credit card skimmers work and how to spot them.

How to spot a credit card skimmer

What is a credit card skimmer?

Credit card skimmers are devices criminals use to steal card information at ATMs, gas pumps, and other payment terminals. Here are several types of card skimming machines that criminals may use to carry out a skimming attack and steal credit card information:

  1. Overlay skimmers. They are devices that are placed over the top of an actual card reader found on ATMs or gas pumps. An overlay skimming device usually looks like part of the original device and can be difficult to detect.
  2. Internal skimmers. An internal skimmer is a skimming device that is installed inside the card reader. It can be more difficult to detect than an overlay skimmer because it is hidden inside the machine.
  3. Wireless skimmers. A wireless credit card skimmer uses Bluetooth technology to transmit credit card information to criminals. This type of skimmer can be placed anywhere near a payment terminal, and criminals can collect the information remotely.
  4. Keypad overlays. These credit card skimmers are placed on top of the keypad of an ATM or other card reader. They are designed to capture the PIN number as the user enters it.
  5. Fake card readers. Criminals may also install entirely fake card readers on an ATM or gas pump. These fake readers are designed to look like the real thing, but they are not connected to the machine’s internal systems.

It’s crucial to be aware of skimmer attacks and to stay vigilant when using your credit or debit card, especially at unfamiliar locations.

How does a credit card skimmer work?

Credit card skimming, also known as card cloning, happens when a skimmer reads your credit or debit card’s magnetic stripe after you insert it into a compromised machine. The device can store credit card information, including the cardholder’s name, card number, and expiration date. It gathers the data from all the cards that account holders insert into the reader until the thief collects it.

Other ways cards can be skimmed

Gone are the days when card skimmers were just clunky gadgets attached to ATMs or gas pumps. These devices have gotten major upgrades and are even more discreet than they used to be. Skimmers now come in all shapes and sizes and have different degrees of complexity.

Some skimmers are physically attached to a payment machine to sneakily extend the length of the card slot, while others are hidden cameras that attempt to capture sensitive data while you’re making a payment. Thieves also install fake keypads, Bluetooth skimmers, and “card shimming” devices (paper-thin strips that hide inside a card slot waiting to clone the magnetic stripe of a payment card) onto card readers.

In the digital world, skimming can happen without a device. Phishing attacks lure you into providing your card details on fake sites or through deceptive emails. Additionally, malware on POS systems or your computer can stealthily log your card info during transactions or online banking operations.

How to spot a credit card skimmer

Although skimming devices are designed to be invisible, it’s possible to identify them by performing a visual and physical examination. Here are a few simple steps you can take:

  1. Look at the card reader. Is there any part of the machine that is out of alignment? If any part of it looks out of place, that could mean a skimmer has been installed.
  2. Inspect the card reader. Use your fingers to check the reader for a skimmer. If it feels like it’s coming apart in some places or a piece of it isn’t solidly connected, a skimming device could be in place.
  3. Give the card reader a little wiggle. There’s a chance you could feel something out of alignment when you put your card in the reader, but then it may be too late to stop the data breach. Try to wiggle the reader before swiping your card. If it feels loose, you may have come across a card skimmer.

Common locations where skimmers are found

Fraudsters typically install credit card skimmers in locations where they can set them up quietly and where many card transactions take place. This way, they can gather as much sensitive data as possible before anyone catches on. The most high-risk areas include:

  • ATMs. ATM skimming is a very common type of credit card fraud. Many people use ATMs, and each transaction is an opportunity for skimmers to capture card data. Moreover, ATMs are available 24/7, allowing fraudsters to discreetly install skimmers when fewer people are around.
  • Gas pumps. Skimmers at gas stations are particularly sneaky. A normal gas pump should have security tape or a sticker over the cabinet panel. Avoid using the card reader if the tape looks ripped or broken. If it does, there’s a high chance a thief has tampered with it.
  • Retail point of sale (POS) systems. Customers usually trust and don’t question the safety of using card terminals in grocery, convenience, or department stores, but even card readers in locations with heavy traffic may have had skimmers installed. Moreover, people often overlook checking card readers in checkout lines because they are often in a rush.
  • Outdoor payment terminals. Outdoor payment terminals, like those for parking or public transport tickets, are attractive spots for thieves to install skimmers. They might not be monitored as closely, giving skimmers a chance to do their dirty work.

What happens if a credit card is skimmed?

Criminals could use stolen card information in a few ways: to create fake credit cards, make fraudulent purchases, or sell stolen data online. However, criminals could use information derived from skimmers for more than financial fraud.

Equipped with your personal data, criminals can also engage in identity theft. Armed with sufficient information, they might impersonate you, apply for loans, or open new credit accounts. Check your bank account regularly. This way, you’ll be aware of all transactions made with your card.

Reporting suspicious activity

Have you noticed something suspicious, for example, online purchases you don’t recognize? Report suspicious transactions to your bank or your credit card issuer immediately.

Reporting suspected instances of credit card skimming is very important because it helps stop further unauthorized transactions and prevent future fraud, protects your credit score, and aids in recovering lost funds.

By reporting suspicious activity, you also contribute to community safety by alerting others to potential threats. Prompt action is key to safeguarding both your financial well-being and that of others.

How to avoid credit card skimmers

The good news is that you can improve your credit card safety by following some simple steps:

  • Always inspect the card reader and keypad. If you feel these parts are loose, avoid making the purchase.
  • Enable transaction alerts. Transaction alerts will notify you about activity on your account. Real-time notifications can help ensure you stay informed about unauthorized or suspicious transactions as soon as they occur.
  • Look for hidden cameras around the credit card reader. Check if any holes are looking down on where you would insert your credit or debit cards. If yes, a hidden camera might capture a video of you entering your PIN.
  • Consider how you pay and withdraw money. Using an application for payments or choosing ATMs in high-traffic areas or inside bank branches is safer than using cash machines located in places where fraudsters can easily corrupt them.
  • Use your credit card. In the case of fraudulent transactions, credit cards may offer a little more protection than debit cards. Why? Credit cards usually offer fraud protection that debit cards do not have.