What are ATM Skimmers and how do they work?
An ATM Skimmer is a device that is placed over and covers the slot where you put your card into a bank ATM machine. It is like a duplicate of the machines actual slot with it’s own “slot”, but inside is a reader (just like in the bank machine) that reads your card number. The reader records the information on your card’s magnetic strip.
These “skimmer” devices are place over or inside the real card slot of ATM machines at banks (usually outside locations), gas stations and other locations. This is usually done at night or some other time when no one is around.
Although ATM surveillance cameras can record the people who put these devices on, the cameras in many cases probably don’t know which person put the device on, or the person could be wearing a disguise or covering the camera lens. Also, just a video may not be enough to identify a person, and/or it may take a lot of time to figure out who they are and track them down.
Since these “fake” skimmers are placed over the card slots of existing machines, most customers may be none the wiser and continue to use these machines for a period of time.
Since the skimmers with the reading devices don’t record a persons PIN number, the same thieves will install a hidden camera somewhere that looks at the person’s hand and keypad as they are entering their PIN number.
These cameras are called pinhole cameras because there is an opening the size of a pinhole with a camera lens inside. The camera is activated when you insert your card into the fake slot, and records you entering your PIN number.
These hidden cameras can be placed in different locations in and around the ATM console.
Sometimes they are in a “fake” smoke detector, speaker cover, or a light of some type placed above the machine, so the hidden camera points down at the keypad.
Your Single Best Defense Against ATM Skimming:
Cover your hand entering your PIN number with your other hand.
This advice is given on some news reports about ATM crimes, but many people just don’t think to do it. Imagine someone standing right there looking over you as you enter your PIN number. Your natural instinct would be to cover your hand so they couldn’t see what number you were putting in – this is what you should always do at an ATM.
My next advice is similar to what I said on my ATM Robbery post. For cash withdrawals at a bank have one favorite location you use most of the time. Familiarize yourself with the features of the ATM you use.
You can even ask your bank manager “When was the last time and how often do you check this machine for fake card readers or hidden cameras”.
Since many more of these skimmers seem to be found at gas station machines than at banks, my advice is the same. Have only one or a few locations where you buy gas, and you are familiar with how the machines are supposed to look.
There have been some cases where an employee, or someone who had a key that would unlock gas pump consoles, placed a skimmer device inside (the console) so it couldn’t be seen from the outside.
Keep your tank full so you don’t have to stop more often and at different places to buy gas. I think it’s better to only buy gas at a national brand station that’s at a major intersection with a lot of traffic, because there’s less chance thieves will have a chance to install this “fake” equipment at one of these locations.
Also, independent stations have many different kinds of gas pumps and card reading devices. It’s hard to keep track of what they’re supposed to look like, and know whether there might be fake parts or hidden cameras mounted.
In general, look for parts that don’t appear to belong on the machine. Look for parts that are raised or loose – many of these fake devices are glued on or put on with double sided tape.
If you see a small “pinhole” somewhere, there could be a hidden camera inside.
If something doesn’t look right about a machine, don’t use it and inform the manager of the bank or gas station, etc. so they can investigate.
Check your bank statements at least on a daily basis online, to look for charges you didn’t put on.
This video shows how ATM customer’s account information was wirelessly sent to a modified cell phone hidden in a fake speaker. In the video you can see the pinhole (for the hidden camera) in the fake speaker:
Although this video is from a bank in Australia, I think it does a good overall job of demonstrating skimmers, how they are hidden, and steps to avoid them: