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What Is Card Skimming?

April 09, 2017

Credit and debit cards are so convenient, and many of them offer perks like cash back or merchandise credit, so it can be tempting to use them everywhere. Unfortunately, thieves also love to cash in on your card numbers, and they can often steal them in plain sight, sometimes without the card even leaving your hand. Fortunately, you can protect yourself by knowing what to look for and the places to use your cards with extra caution.


How Do They Do It?

Thieves can “skim” the information from your credit or debit card using devices that attach to the card reader on an ATM machine, point-of-sale terminal, or gas station pump. A skimmer is designed to blend in with the existing equipment so well that you may never notice it. In fact, some are so tiny that thieves can slip them inside an existing card reader, completely invisible to you or the cashier. Later, the thieves retrieve the information and use it to create fake cards, or they simply use the card information to make on-line transfers and purchases.

Skimming can also happen when your card is out of your sight. Criminal organizations sometimes recruit or pressure cashiers to help steal credit or debit cards. (This is called “insider theft.”) When the card is out of your sight, the cashier runs it through the regular card reader to pay for your purchase, then through a hand-held skimmer to steal the information. This kind of skimming most often happens at retail shops and restaurants. Fast food drive-through windows are particularly risky because your card is out of your sight.

Even the new chip, or EMV, cards are vulnerable to skimming because cards issued in the U.S. still include a magnetic stripe for backwards compatibility. Skimming won’t happen with a chip reader, but the cards can be skimmed at readers that haven’t been upgraded, such as many gas station pumps.


Protect Yourself!

Here are some ways to avoid having your card numbers skimmed:

  • Only use ATMs in well-lit, public locations because those are harder for thieves to tamper with. Use the ATM inside of the bank or supermarket if possible.
  • Inspect the device for obvious signs of tampering on the card reader itself and around the screen, speakers, and keyboard. If the colors or materials are different, the graphics aren’t aligned, or anything else doesn’t look right, don’t use it.
  • Use a credit card instead of a debit card whenever possible. You can easily challenge fraudulent credit card charges, whereas it’s difficult to get the money back if someone cleans out your bank account.
  • When you use your debit card for purchases, you often have the option to use the card as a credit or a debit card. If you choose the credit option and you can avoid entering your PIN, that’s an extra layer of safety.
  • If the credit card terminal accepts mobile payments, consider usingApple Pay, Samsung Pay, or Android Pay. These services tokenize your credit card information, so your personal information is never exposed.


Of course, there is also one thing that offers 100 percent protection from skimming: if in doubt, use cash!

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