Criminals have been using skimmers to steal credit and debit card numbers at ATMs or gas pumps for years. The problem is it’s still happening all over the world at pretty much the same rate, even with the new cards that are embedded with a microchip.
Yes, those new credit and debit cards with the so-called “security” chip can still be compromised with a simple skimming device.
Late last year, federal authorities charged eight people in six different fraud cases around the country. Investigators say altogether, this crime ring stole at least $3.5 million from roughly 7,000 victims using skimmers.
The criminals placed skimmers at over 50 gas stations mostly in Louisville, Kentucky, and surrounding states. The suspects plugged the devices into the gas pumps like a USB, capturing sensitive information without consumers noticing.
The thing is these days there are more Bluetooth and cellular-enabled skimmers on the streets, which allows credit card information to be transmitted without having to open up the pump again after putting the skimmer in place. Criminals can simply sit at another gas pump and collect your information wirelessly.
All eight people who were arrested were charged with at least one count of aggravated identity theft. If convicted, that one charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 24 months. This sentence must be served consecutively to the sentence incurred for any other fraud offense.
Unfortunately, this type of crime isn’t going away anytime soon. Here are the top three places where you are most vulnerable — and the steps you can take to protect yourself.
Public Charging Stations
You commonly see these charging stations in airports, theme parks and other locations where people usually spend extended amounts of time. The problem is these stations typically connect to your device via a USB port, rather than simply plugging into a power outlet.
Since data can also be transmitted via USB, criminals can install a type of malware in the charging station that gives them control of your phone once you plug it in. The best way to protect your information is to use a standard power outlet because they are much harder for criminals to access.
If your only option is to charge your device via USB, I recommend buying a USB data blocker. These adapters cost as little as $7 on Amazon. They connect to your device and the charger and block the data pin in the charger. Put simply, the only thing that passes through the cord is power.
In 2017, the number of ATMs compromised by skimmers rose 8% from the previous year. One of the biggest problems is that when you go to take money out or check your balance at an ATM, it usually provides information for all your accounts from the specific banking institution. So not only could a criminal access your checking account, but they could easily tap into your savings as well.
Typically, thieves will place a skimming device on the ATM itself and then place a tiny camera nearby so they can capture your pin number. This could happen at any ATM — even those located inside banks. Just because the ATM is located in a secure vestibule or building doesn’t mean it cannot be compromised.
While avoiding ATMs altogether is the best option, I realize that’s not always possible. The best thing to do is to change your ATM pin regularly, at least once a month.
Gas Pumps and Vending Machines
Using unattended credit and debit card terminals is incredibly risky even if you have a card with a chip. One of the newest tools used by thieves are “shimmers,” a type of skimmer that’s capable of reading the data from chip-based debit and credit cards.
Roughly half of skimmers placed on credit card terminals are invisible — unless you have access to the terminal. The best way to avoid these skimmers is to deal directly with a human. If you are using your card at a gas station, for instance, you should go inside and have the clerk process the transaction.
If your only option is to use an unattended terminal, first look for any signs that it has been tampered with. Try wiggling the card slot or PIN pad to see if anything is loose or if there’s an extra piece attached. Also, make sure the security tape on the terminal hasn’t been broken and it matches that on the other pumps.
Finally, the most important step you can take to protect yourself from being a victim of skimming is to review your bank statements at least once a month. This way you will catch any unauthorized transactions before too much damage is done.