Credit card fraud is becoming more sophisticated, with scammers using devices called “skimmers” that steal and store your information after you swipe or insert your card.
Thankfully, you can visually identify skimmers if you know what to look for. Here are a few low-tech ways you can keep your card safe.
What does a credit card skimmer look like?
A skimmer is a small device that scammers attach to card readers on ATMs, gas pumps or any other device where you insert your card for payment or withdrawal. They look similar to the card reader itself and might increase the length of the reader by a small amount.
These stealthy devices are a highly effective way for scammers to easily steal your info if you don’t know how to spot them.
How does a skimmer work?
When you insert or swipe your credit or debit card, the skimming device captures the information found in your card’s magnetic strip. You’re able to complete your transaction like normal, but the crook who installed the skimmer can collect the skimmer later, download your information and make purchases or withdrawals without your knowledge.
What’s in my card’s magnetic strip?
A wealth of information is stored in that little black strip on the back of your card. It contains the name of your bank or issuer, your name and country, your account number and PIN and other details specific to your account, like your account limits and the types of charges your card accepts. In short, enough to make purchases with your data.
How common are gas pump and ATM skimmers?
While there isn’t a great amount of data on the prevalence of skimmers, it’s thought that their use is on the rise. A single credit card skimmer can capture information on up to 100 credit cards in a day.
Credit card chip technology has done a lot to prevent skimmers at retailers and most major ATMs, so gas stations and non-major ATMs remain the primary targets of skimmers. This may change when gas stations are forced to comply with the merchant fraud liability shift in October 2020.
How to spot and avoid credit card skimmers
Although skimming can happen almost anywhere you use your card, you can prevent losing your data to a skimmer.
Here are a few simple ways to stay safe:
Study the card reader. Jiggle or shake the card reader before using it. Skimmers are often not securely attached, and moving it around could release and expose it. Look for ATMs, gas pumps and any other credit card readers in well-lit and monitored locations.
Give your card a glance. Scratches, markings or stickiness left on your card after swiping are all signs that your card may have been tampered with.
Manage your card settings. Most offer a way for you to control where your card can be used. For instance, you can set parameters that limit high-total purchases or request notification by text or email if your card is used online rather than in person at a store.
Track your balances. Monitor your account balances to avoid being blindsided by an overdraft or unauthorized purchase. By adjusting notification services, you can be informed if an attempt is made to charge over an allotted amount.
Consider cash. At the pump, pay for your gas inside or with an attendant. For other purchases, sign and save your receipts until you’re able to verify purchases on your next statement.
What to do if your credit card has been skimmed
If you suspect your credit card information was skimmed during a recent transaction, you’ll want to respond with a few common measures. This includes notifying your bank, alerting the FTC and placing an initial fraud alert.
From here, you’ll want to keep an eye on your credit card accounts. Regular monitoring of your account can keep you informed of any unusual activity and let you quickly respond. You can also contact a credit monitoring service to help you maintain oversight of your account. These services automatically notify you if any changes or activity occur on your account.
Most credit cards at this point possess an EMV chip for an additional layer of security. If your credit card doesn’t have this feature, you’ll want to call your bank and see if you can receive a card that has one. While they won’t protect you from skimming, they do help protect against other forms of credit card fraud.
Moving forward, you’ll want to take a closer look at the card reader at any ATM or gas station you use. If it looks unusual, such as misaligned, loose or a different color than the rest of the device, you’ll want to skip on using your card there.
If you find a skimmer or confirm that you’ve been a victim of one, first call your financial institution to let them know when and where you think it happened. Cancel your card and request a replacement, and follow up by email to further document your claim.
From there, place an initial fraud alert on your card. A fraud alert requires businesses to contact you before issuing credit in your name for up to 90 days.
Filing a police report and alerting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are also good practices. The FTC works to prevent skimming rings and catching crooks that skim.
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There’s no sure-fire way to prevent skimming. Every time you swipe your card, there’s a chance someone could be attempting to carry off your info. Be aware of how and where your card is used to significantly decrease the likelihood of your personal and financial details being skimmed. Read more about credit card security to keep your personal finances safe.
Frequently asked questions
Skimmers vary in appearance based on where they are located. YouTube offers many videos showing how you can spot one.
Generally, no. Cases of skimming are best resolved by your bank and FTC. However, you can still call your local police to inform then of recent skimming practices.
Federal law limits a cardholder’s liability for fraudulent charges to $50. By calling your credit card’s customer service line, you’ll likely find they’ll waive even that amount.
When it comes to your overall loss after your ATM or debit card has been stolen or skimmed, the amount of your liability will depend on factors that include how quickly you report it and how much is stolen from your account. Call first and follow it up in writing to start an investigation.
Sarah Barness is the credit cards editor at Finder, keeping up with the latest products in the industry to present readers with unbiased reviews and guides. She has over eight years of digital media industry experience in fast-paced newsrooms in New York City and Los Angeles. Before Finder, Sarah was ranked as a top-viewed HuffPost editor and writer. She was also a lifestyle senior editor for A Plus, a digital media publication founded by Ashton Kutcher. Sarah holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from The New School, as well as a certificate in editing from Poynter ACES.
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