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How to Protect Against Card Skimming

Card skimming, the practice of using an electronic device, known as a skimmer, to record account data encoded on the magnetic stripe on a credit, debit or ATM card, has grown to a $1 billion-plus annual business, according to published reports.

Once the card information is skimmed, thieves use other methods, such as cameras, shoulder surfing (use of a camera or a person to read over the legitimate users’ shoulder), or copying to record PIN information (as in the case of restaurants).

Identity thieves have even gone as far as to set up entirely bogus ATMs in busy locations to skim cards. The user inserts their card and gets it back, but without any transaction occurring. The user assumes the bogus ATM, which has now copied all of the pertinent card information from the magnetic strip, is broken.

The bogus ATM machine is programmed to return the card—rather than just taking it and keeping it—because the latter action would cause the user to call their bank immediately and the card would be cancelled.

According to Margot Mohsberg, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, the problem of card skimming is on the rise for two primary reasons—the technology to commit the crimes is becoming cheaper in price and easier to obtain and all forms of fraud tend to increase when the economy is down.

Skimming at restaurants and other locations where the consumer surrenders the card tends to be less frequent because it requires an insider to run the scam.

The ABA recommends the following steps to protect against card skimming at ATMs.

  •  Look for any attachments to the outside of an ATM.

  • Use ATMs you are familiar with so that if there are changes, the difference is easily noticed.

  • If something doesn’t seem right with the ATM, use another one.

  • Cover the keypad to screen cameras before entering a PIN.

  • Use a machine that is inside a bank whenever possible.

  • Check your account online to make sure there are no suspicious charges.

  • Be wary of those trying to help you, especially when an ATM "eats" your card. They may be trying to steal your card number and PIN.

  • Contact your bank immediately if your card is lost, stolen or subject to fraudulent use.

  • Keep a record of card numbers, PINs, expiration dates and 1-800 numbers in a secure place so the information is available if you need to contact issuing banks in cases of theft.

  • Memorize your PIN. Do not use your birth date, address, phone number or social security number. Never store your PIN with your card and do not make it available to others.

  • Do not give your PIN to anyone over the phone. Often thieves steal the cards and then call the victims for their PIN while claiming to be law enforcement or the issuing bank.


The Consumer Sentinel Network (CSN) was started in 1997 to collect fraud and identity theft complaints. The CSN now has more than 7.2 million complaints, including those about credit reports, debt collection, mortgages, and lending, among other subjects. [Source]

Key Terms To Understanding Card Skimming Card Skimming:

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Based in Colorado, Rob Douglas is an identity theft expert and has been fighting against fraud and cyber crime for more than a decade. He is the editor of www.IdentityTheft.info and a speaker at identity theft conferences across the USA.

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