Attack of the skimmers: ATM fraud on the rise?
Skimmers, in case the term is new to you, are teeny electronic devices that can be assimilated into the card slot so that when customers insert or drag their ATM cards to make transactions, their account details can be stored or transmitted to a third party, which can use the information to clean out your savings. Think of it as a form of piracy for your account numbers, except you walk away with your card, none the wiser.
Last week, a Consumerist reader kicked off the sleuthing by finding one at a WaMu branch at which the machine didn't feel quite right. A Gizmodo reader found one in New York City's East Village, and after reading that item, a blogger named Nick McGlynn found one at the first bank he passed, too. In the last two cases, the presence of the skimmer was given away by a tell-tale mirror that concealed a pinhole camera that could record customers' PINs as they were entered in the keypad.
Gizmodo has a picture of the set-up, which included a custom-made card slot and an over-screen mirror with a pinhole drilled in the base. Consumerist has another shot of a different camera set-up.
In the comments section of websites covering this trend, more people are claiming to have recently found skimmers near their own homes, including one reader of Boing Boing (commenter number 40), who says one was found on a Diebold ATM in Germany.
It used to be that skimmers were more often found in unattended locations, such as gas stations or in markets. But these three discoveries, all in bank branches, prove that when it comes to scouring their machines for grafted-on devices, the banks aren't doing such a good job. (And that make sense. They can barely hold onto your money once you've deposited it anyway.) In fact, the WaMu branch admitted it didn't sweep its machines because it didn't know what it was looking for, and when the alert reader notified the cops, "the policemen got a big kick out of the skimmer, saying they'd never seen one in person."
Thieves need both a recording of your PIN and of your card's magnetic stripe to do their worst damage, so inspect every ATM you use, even ones within banks that you'd assume were secure, to make sure no alterations have been made. Tug a little on the mouth of the card slot to ensure it isn't a false mouth that hasn't been pasted on by a crook.
Also look for any tiny hole aimed at the keypad. It's a very good idea to shield the code keypad completely with your free hand while you are entering your number. Memorize the way the keystrokes feel without looking so that you can literally place your other hand over your code-punching hand so that the numbers are not visible from any sight-line, not even your own.
If you find one, call the police or tell the bank immediately. Skimmers usually have only enough battery life or memory to last a couple of days, and sometimes, the scammers are keeping a close eye nearby and itching to harvest their numbers. You don't want to be confronted by anyone who'd be so sleazy as to make one of these things and drain the life savings of strangers.