In James Cameron's sci-fi film "Terminator 2," a young John Connor hooks a fancy piece of gear into an ATM. His high-tech hacking device isolates a PIN number, and soon the ATM is spitting out $300 of someone else's money, a nice pile of cash to fuel an afternoon of teenage delinquency. "Terminator 2" may be science fiction, but ATM skimming is the real deal; in 2010 more than $200,000 was stolen from four Bank of America ATMs in Long Island, New York [source: Schultz].
ATM thieves aren't outfitted with John Connor's strictly-Hollywood gadgetry, but they don't have to be. Using counterfeit card readers and hidden cameras, real ATM skimming is almost as easy as it looks in the movies. To make matters worse, skimming devices are usually well camouflaged and easy to overlook -- but with some help and a little bit of knowledge, you'll hopefully be able to spot a suspicious ATM when you see one.
Watch Out for ATMs in the Open
We've all seem them before: those lonely street corner ATMs, bathed in a weak pool of flickering light. Those ATMs tucked away in dark corners could easily hide opportunistic muggers -- or skimmers. If an ATM looks shady or suspicious, or is simply poorly lit, it's probably best to avoid it altogether.
When you're on the lookout for an ATM to use, think about how accessible it is. How easy would it be for a thief to gain access to the ATM? Is it in a locked building at night, or completely unguarded? Is it built for privacy in a way that would easily hide a credit thief while they install a skimmer?
It would be downright paranoid to assume every outdoor ATM is dangerous, of course. Just do your best to avoid the ones that look especially seedy. More importantly, you need to be aware of hidden cameras masquerading as everyday objects at ATMs that look completely safe. Read on to learn more about how to recognize them.
Check for Hidden Cameras
ATM skimmers typically consist of two parts: one that steals data from your card, and one that obtains your PIN number. In many cases, PIN numbers are recorded by hidden cameras placed above or near the keypad. When you arrive at an ATM, look around the machine. Are there any innocent-looking objects -- the kind of stuff you'd typically ignore without a thought -- placed a little too close to the machine? Spy cameras don't take up much space, and there are things all around us we pay no attention to that could easily hide an illicit recording device. For instance, a brochure holder near an ATM is perfect for hiding a camera [source: Krebs].
Anything close enough to get a good shot of the keypad could potentially hide a camera. Just take a quick look at anything near the ATM, but don't get too worried about someone eyeing your PIN. Thankfully, protecting yourself from these cameras is incredibly easy. Just remember to always use one hand to cover the keypad as you enter your PIN. Even better, use a wallet or checkbook -- just keep your PIN safe from prying eyes, be they human or electronic.
Sometimes ATM thieves go even further with their camera-hiding schemes, going so far as to camouflage their illicit add-on as part of the ATM itself. Go to the next page to find out more.
Look for Odd Protrusions Around the ATM
When you arrive at an ATM, look for any off-color plastic near the top of the machine. Anything there? Even an innocent-looking object that appears part of the ATM could be housing a tiny camera recording your keypad input [source: Walters]. Because they're better camouflaged than objects sitting in broad daylight, molded pieces can be designed to blend in with a specific ATM and hide a spy cam.
Even if it may blend in at first glance, take a second to study anything placed above the ATM. Does the color look a little off? Does it simply look out of place? Most telling would be a pinhole positioned above the keypad. Believe it or not, a tiny hole is enough for a camera to peek through and record dozens -- or hundreds -- of people every day entering their PINs. As we previously mentioned, remember to cover the pad as you input your PIN.
Unfortunately, cameras aren't the only tools at the ATM skimmer's disposal -- fake keypads can be used to record PIN inputs, too. Those can't be defeated by using your hand as a shield. But just as you may be able to notice an odd camera-hiding protrusion above the ATM, you may be able to tell that the keypad is unusually raised up around the surrounding ATM panel [source: Krebs]. If there's any evidence that the keypad has a fake overlay on top of it, steer clear of that ATM.
In extreme cases, the keypad may not be all that's fake -- some ATM skimmers use entire fake front panels to hide their electronics.
Study the Instructions and Diagrams on the ATM Panel
Amazingly, some thieves go as far as replicating large portions of ATM machines. A big piece of plastic fitted over the front of the ATM can obscure the data-stealing electronics. Behind these panels, the police often find magnetic strip readers and storage devices for recording the data of every card slotted into the ATM [source: Krebs]. Smart thieves will model these molds to closely match the original ATM, but the replica may not be perfect.
The better the replica, the harder it will be to distinguish from the real thing. Taking a few seconds to study the ATM could make all the difference, though. If you notice odd discrepancies between the printed directions on the face of the ATM, strange color shifts between portions of plastic, or the kind of bulging that could indicate a fake panel, it wouldn't hurt to switch to a different teller machine. If two identical units are placed side-by-side, compare them -- do the diagrams and images match?
While some thieves use entire front panels to try to mask their handiwork, others opt for a smaller-scale approach: false card readers slipped innocently over the real debit card slot.
Study and Jiggle the Card Slot
Here's the final, major step you can take to protect yourself from ATM skimmers -- be wary of the card slot. Fake card readers will swipe and record the personal data on your debit card. If thieves also obtain your PIN number, your debit card has been compromised. Because the fake card readers have to fit over the original slot, there are a few ways you can check for them.
If the slot seems to be protruding further out from the ATM than it should, rock it back and forth. Does it seem attached or too flimsy? If it's wiggly, it might be a fake add-on [source: ClarkHoward.com]. Again, our previous tips could help out here, too. Does the card slot match the instructions on the face of the ATM? If there are identical ATMs nearby, glance at them. Do they share the same card slot design?
In the event you ever discover a card skimmer, don't just flee the ATM for safer pastures. There's no telling how many people could fall victim to a skimming scheme until the foreign devices are discovered by someone else. If the ATM is at a bank, informing a bank employee is the easiest solution. Even if the bank isn't familiar with card skimmers, they can still shut the ATM down. If you're not at a bank, check the face of the ATM and its display screen for a contact number. If the installer can be contacted, they can alert the proper authorities and take care of the skimmer.
Remember, ATM thieves need access to both your PIN and the personal information stored on the magnetic strip of your debit card to access your account. By protecting your PIN and staying observant every time you use an ATM -- keeping an eye out for hidden cameras, fake panels and card readers -- you'll hopefully keep your money safe, and out of the hands of thieves who steal more than $1 billion annually through credit card and ATM fraud [source: Siciliano].
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More Great Links
- ADT. "ADT Anti-Skim™ ATM Security Solutions." (Oct. 6, 2010). http://www.adt.com/medium_large_business/security_solutions/solutions_by_industry?wgc=financial_institutions/anti-skim
- ClarkHoward.com. "ATM skimmer scam back with increased sophistication." July 27, 2010. (Oct. 13, 2010). http://clarkhoward.com/liveweb/shownotes/2010/07/27/18931/
- Gammon, Katharine. "ATMs by the Numbers." Aug. 24, 2009. (Oct. 6, 2010). http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-09/st_atms
- Gardiner, Sean. "$217,000 'Skimmed' From ATMs." June 9, 2010. (10/5/2010). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703302604575295082741170878.html
- Krebs, Brian. "ATM Skimmers, Part II." Feb. 2, 2010. (Oct. 5, 2010). http://krebsonsecurity.com/2010/02/atm-skimmers-part-ii/
- Krebs, Brian. "Fun With ATM Skimmers, Part III. May 7, 2010. (Oct. 5, 2010). http://krebsonsecurity.com/2010/05/fun-with-atm-skimmers-part-iii/
- Krebs, Brian. "Would You Have Spotted the Fraud?" Jan. 15, 2010. (Oct. 5, 2010). http://krebsonsecurity.com/2010/01/would-you-have-spotted-the-fraud/
- McCullagh, Declan. "Security researcher demonstrates ATM hacking." July 28, 2010. (Oct. 4, 2010). http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-20012019-83.html
- Patton, Phil. "The Bucklands Boys and Other Tales of the ATM." (Oct. 6, 2010). http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.05/atm_pr.html
- Poulsen, Kevin. "Former Con Man Helps Feds Thwart Alleged ATM Hacking Spree." May 4, 2010. (Oct. 4, 2010). http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/05/thor/
- Schultz, Jennifer Saranow. "How to Spot an A.T.M. Skimming Device." June 9, 2010. (Oct. 5, 2010). http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/09/how-to-spot-an-a-t-m-skimming-device/
- Schwartz, John. "Researchers See Privacy Pitfalls in No-Swipe Credit Cards." Oct. 23, 2006. (Oct. 6, 2010). http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/23/business/23card.html?_r=2
- Siciliano, Robert. "ATM Skimming Identity Theft Reaches $1 Billion in Losses." Sept. 9, 2009. (Oct. 6, 2010). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-siciliano/atm-skimming-identity-the_b_280100.html
- Siciliano, Robert. "NY ATMs Get Whacked: How Secure Are You and That ATM Transaction?" June 10, 2010. (Oct. 6, 2010). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-siciliano/ny-atms-get-whacked-how-s_b_606019.html
- Walters, Chris. "Here's What A Card Skimmer Looks Like On An ATM." April 19, 2009. (Oct. 5, 2010). http://consumerist.com/2009/04/heres-what-a-card-skimmer-looks-like-on-an-atm.html
- Zetter, Kim. "Video: Bank Customers Foil ATM Skimmer." Sept. 24, 2010. (Oct. 6, 2010). http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/09/skimming-video/