How to Spot a Credit Card Skimmer

Don’t let crooks steal your information for credit card fraud.

Crooks get your account information to commit credit card fraud in many ways, including use of a credit card skimming device. They install third-party card readers on gas station pumps to capture your credit or debit card data from the magnetic strip on the back. Then they use the data to make counterfeit cards and rack up charges on your accounts until you or your bank notice and cut them off. Understanding these devices and knowing how to identify them can help you keep your credit cards safe from fraud.

Where to Look for Credit Card Skimmers

Gas stations are popular targets for credit card skimming devices, as criminals can easily compromise a gas pump card reader with a skimmer placed inside or out. They also place card skimming devices on ATMs. An ATM skimmer is sometimes buried so deep inside the machine that it’s virtually undetectable. “Handheld skimmers are also used in retail stores by rogue clerks, but they are less of an issue than those installed on gas pumps and ATMs,” said Attorney Steven J.J. Weisman, author of “Identity Theft Alert” and the Scamicide blog.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends some best practices for gas stations to keep their pumps safe from card skimming devices, including daily card reader inspections and use of security seals. Crooks sometimes use fake security tape, so stations should also track the seals’ security numbers to make sure they’re the same seals that were originally placed.

Learn More: Debit and Credit Card Fraud Soars 70%

How to Detect a Credit Card Skimmer

Ask your local gas stations what they do for skimming device detection, and only patronize stations that know how to spot card skimmers. Do your own due diligence, too, and know how to spot a credit card skimmer, or at least the signs that might indicate one is in place. These include:

  • Security tape that shows “void” or looks like it has been tampered with
  • A gas pump card reader or PIN entry pad that isn’t flush with the pump’s door panel
  • A gas pump card reader that wiggles when you pull on it

“Many skimmers sit on top of the real card slot. It may feel silly, but wiggling the machine itself where the card goes in can be a good way to determine if there’s a skimmer,” said Ellen Cunningham, marketing manager at CardFellow, which advocates for fair and honest credit card processing fees. “If anything is loose or not one continuous piece, it may be an indication it was tampered with. If the PIN pad seems thick or the buttons seem more difficult to press, it could be a sign of a PIN pad overlay for skimming.”

Also See: 5 Ways to Set Off Your Own Fraud Alert

Avoiding Card Reader Fraud

Even if you know how to detect a credit card skimmer, it’s better to avoid situations where you’re likely to encounter a skimming device. Knowing the warning signs doesn’t always work because a credit card skimmer might be tiny and discrete, or it might be inside the pump itself, making it impossible to see. Use these tips to avoid becoming a credit card fraud victim due to a skimming device:

  • Use credit rather than debit. If you pay with a debit card, use it as a credit card so thieves don’t get their hands on your PIN. “There’s often a camera near the skimmer to capture PINs, said Justin Lavelle, chief communications director for BeenVerified.com. “Debit cards have less forgiving fraud rules and are usually tied directly to your checking account. Money taken can be hard to get back,” he warned.
  • Use a credit card with a chip. Insert only the chip part. If you don’t swipe the magnetic strip, criminals won’t get your data.
  • Pay for your fuel inside the gas station. This way, you don’t run the risk of swiping your card through a skimming device.
  • Beware of non-bank ATMs. This applies especially to those in remote locations with poor visibility. They’re ripe for having an ATM skimmer.
  • Avoid using your card in secluded areas. Don’t use secluded gas pumps, ATMs or vending machines that aren’t serviced regularly, warned Lavelle. “Skimmers are usually deployed in areas that have limited or no attendant supervision,” he said.
  • Use the Skimmer Scanner app. The app lets you check for a wireless credit card skimmer. The Skimmer Scanner app works by looking for suspicious connections with the most common skimming device.
  • Try a Bluetooth connection. If you don’t have the Skimmer Scanner app, another way to detect a card skimmer is to use your phone to look for a Bluetooth connection, Weisman said. “If you see something close by attempting to connect, this could be an indication of a skimmer.”

In the event you suspect your card has been compromised, contact the card issuer immediately. A quick response reduces the likelihood that you’ll be held responsible for fraudulent charges. Follow any recommendations the issuer offers, and then report the theft to the FTC.

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