A guide on card skimmers and keeping your cards safe in everyday situations.
It’s Sunday. Your team wins its big game, and you’re on top of the world. Settling in for a night of Netflix, you get a call from a toll-free number. What comes next is shocking: “This is a representative calling about suspicious activity on your bank card.”
The situation is relatable to most and may even be something you’ve experienced yourself. Credit card fraud is becoming more sophisticated, with scammers using devices called “skimmers” that steal and store your information with a quick swipe or dip.
This guide will help you identify card skimmers and provide low-tech ways that you can keep your card safe.
What is a skimmer?
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.
To the average consumer, the odds of falling victim to a skimmer — or that a skimmer will be successful — may seem low. But these nearly undetectable 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 dip 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 it later, download your information and make purchases or withdrawals without your knowledge.
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.
Although skimming can happen almost anywhere you use your card, you can prevent losing your data to a skimmer.
Start by managing your card settings with your financial institution. 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).
Here are a few other ways to stay safe:
- Study the card reader. Go ahead and jiggle or shake the card reader before using it. Skimmers are not often securely attached, and moving it around could release and expose it.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dip your chip. Using the chip reader, instead of swiping the magnetic strip, significantly lessens the chance of fraud. If your card doesn’t have a chip, request one from your financial institution.
- 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.
A note about ATMs and gas pumps
ATMs and gas pumps are the ideal places for a criminal to attach a skimmer. They’re relatively unattended and used with such frequency that it’d be hard to tell a criminal affixing one from a customer merely withdrawing cash or purchasing gas. Look for ATMs, gas pumps and any other credit card readers in well-lit and monitored locations.
How do I report a skimmer?
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 are also good practices. The FTC works to preventing skimming rings and catching crooks that skim.
There’s no sure-fire way to prevent skimming. Every time your card is swiped, 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.
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Frequently asked questions
What does a skimmer look like?
Skimmers vary in appearance based on where they are located. YouTube offers many videos showing how you can spot one.
I’m a victim of skimming. Now what?
Don’t panic. This can happen to anyone and can be reconciled. Notify your financial institution immediately, file a police report and place an initial fraud alert on your account.
Will I have to pay for fraudulent charges made to my credit card?
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 due to theft or skimming of your ATM or debit card, 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.