How to Spot a Credit Card Skimmer

These scamming devices can appear on any unmonitored payment station. Learn how to spot and avoid them.

There are many ways to be scammed these days, from online shopping scams to Amazon email scams to the ever-present phone scam, making it hard to know who or what to trust. The best defense against being compromised is education and awareness. One common scam you might not be on the lookout for yet? Credit card skimmers.

What does a credit card skimmer do?

According to Robert Siciliano, CEO of cyber security training company ProtectNow, “A credit card skimmer is a tool that transfers data from the card’s stripe. The crook downloads this to his device, then burns the data onto a phony card or uses it to place online or phone orders.” Credit card skimmers are illegal, but RFID skimming is not.

How can you recognize a credit card skimmer?

Credit card skimmers are most often found at ATMs and gas stations, but can appear anywhere there’s an unmonitored payment station. At ATMs and gas station pumps, skimmers are often bulky, plastic attachments placed on top of the original card readers. Tell-tale signs are readers that stick out, aren’t aligned with the arrows on the machine, or have plastic that wiggles or doesn’t feel secure.

If there are other terminals nearby, compare the card reading slot. If they don’t look the same, some might be equipped with credit card skimmers, and you should report the cybercrime to whoever owns the machine.

Do skimmers work on chip cards?

Credit card skimmers do work on chip-enabled cards; however, they read the magnetic strip on your card, not the chip, so avoid the strip reader when possible. Chris Hauk, consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, says to “use a chip reader on the pump if it is available, and always use a pump that is in a visible part of the gas station, such as the pump right in front of the cashier’s window.” He continues, “High visibility pumps are tougher to attach skimmers to.”

How can you protect yourself from credit card skimmers?

Because scammers may use cards that have been skimmed for online orders without the merchant seeing the physical card, identity theft protection company Lifelock suggests setting up alerts to let you know if your debit or credit cards are used for a “card not present” transaction of $100 or more. In addition, Siciliano recommends regularly checking your statements, especially if you’re regularly in crowded areas like subways and airports.

As a rule of thumb, exercise awareness anytime you’re using a public pay station or when your card leaves your sight, such as when a shop employee takes your card into another room to run the transaction, as they could be dipping the card into a skimmer. Point-of-sale terminals in plain view are a safer bet, such as grocery store checkouts, which are unlikely to be left unattended.

What to do if you think your card has been skimmed

If you think your card has been skimmed, you should report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), both to protect others from being scammed and to help the FTC break up skimming rings.

Installing the mobile apps for your various accounts is a convenient way to stay on top of your transactions, but regardless of how you do it, regularly checking your statements is critical, and timing can make the difference between you incurring out-of-pocket costs or not.

Not all credit card companies offer fraud protection, so you should also report the crime to your financial institution as soon as possible because how much you’re responsible for depends on how quickly you report the compromised card.

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Jaime Stathis
Jaime Alexis Stathis is a nonfiction writer who covers humans, wildlife, technology, social justice, and everything related to being a human being on a constantly evolving planet. Jaime is working on a novel about a heroine who saves herself and a memoir about caring for her grandmother through the dark stages of dementia.