Editorial Policy

How to Protect Yourself from Credit Card Skimming

Marcia Frellick

September 20, 2011

Before you stick a credit or debit card into a gas-pump slot, an ATM or another unattended reader, it might pay to look for signs of tampering from skimming.
It’s happening often enough to prompt another warning to consumers from the Better Business Bureau.     
Skimming is the crime of capturing information stored on a magnetic stripe by tampering with the hardware or software of card reading devices, and it can happen in several ways.
It could be a device stuck inside the actual reader; it could be a fake reader installed over the real reader; or a camera set up near the slot to record the information; or someone using wireless technology to intercept signals that some gas stations use to transmit card data from pumps to computers. It could even be a corrupt employee in a bar or restaurant who may use an illegal reader and sell the information to thieves. 
The criminals download the information and often encode it to a blank card, which they can then use to pull money from the victim’s account.   
NACS, an international trade association for retailers and suppliers, offers one way to help gas stations detect the fraud. NACS has developed a WeCare security label to be used on fuel dispensers near the credit/debit card transaction area. If the label is lifted to insert a skimming device, a “void” message alerts customers and store employees.   
But detection relies mostly on consumer awareness and sharp attention. Experts offer these tips to help protect yourself:
  • Avoid using ATMs in poorly lit or low-trafficked areas. Experts often recommend choosing an ATM inside a bank over standalone ATMs. Look for new or suspiciously placed cameras and unusual signage.
  • Pay inside a gas station where you can deal with a person and sign for the transaction.
  • Pay attention to what the card reader and keypad normally look like on the ATMs you use most frequently.
  • Don’t use an ATM if the card reader appears to be added on, fits poorly or is loose. Look for glue marks or residue around the reader. 
  • When entering your PIN, cover the keypad with your other hand to hide information from any cameras. Also, periodically change your PIN.
  • Don’t let a store employee walk away with your credit card to swipe it if you can help it.
  • Monitor your statements and keep a close eye out for suspicious charges. Through your financial institution, you can also sign up for alerts that will notify you when certain types of transactions occur.
  • Report any fraudulent activity to your bank as soon as you discover it. Consumer protections for debit and credit cards vary, but depend largely on when the fraudulent activity is reported.