Security experts say that more and more devices used to steal consumers' banking information directly from ATMs are razor-thin and almost impossible to detect. Known as "skimmers," they obtain personal account data from the magnetic strips on the backs of cards. Thieves often also hide video cameras nearby so that they also have access to your banking pin.
Older, less sophisticated skimmers attached to the outsides of the machines, making them easier for savvy bank customers to spot. However, the new skimmers are thin metal devices that fit inside the ATM slots, making them virtually invisible to users.
Cyber security expert Brian Krebs recently posted photos on his blog of one of the sophisticated skimmers that an unnamed bank from southern Europe says it found in one of its ATMs. The device appears to be powered by a common battery, extending its life and maximizing the number of accounts the criminals are able to access.
"It was discovered in the ATM's card slot and the fraudsters didn't manage to withdraw it," a bank employee told Krebs on the condition of anonymity. "We didn't capture any hidden camera [because] they probably took it. There were definitely no PIN pad [overlays]. In all skimming cases lately we see through the videos that fraudsters capture the PIN through [hidden] cameras.
While that particular skimmer was discovered in Europe, the devices are also widely used on this side of the pond. Just this year, four suspects pleaded guilty to planting skimmers on various ATMs in the greater Atlanta area, ultimately stealing debit card numbers and passcodes of nearly 5,000 bank customers. The criminals took more than $380,000 from accounts at Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
The thieves used a magnetic card reader/writer to encode gift cards with users' account information taken from the metal strips on the backs of their cards. They then used the cards to withdraw money from ATMs using the pin codes they had obtained through a hidden camera.
"Victims in this case were devastated to learn that merely by using an ATM, they had unwittingly handed over their debit card information to criminals who in turn used the information to drain their bank accounts," United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said in a press release. "The victims continue to suffer, from having to worry about what else may be done with their personal information to spending valuable time trying to clear their good names and credit. Identity theft takes many forms but always creates havoc in the lives of good people."
Stories like this one are sobering. However, there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself against skimmers and other cyber criminals. Always cover the pin pad when entering your code into an ATM so that any hidden cameras won't be able to capture it. If you notice anything strange about a machine, such as an unfamiliar or odd-looking card-swiping device, do not use it. Remember: Better safe than sorry!
To defend yourself against identity theft, it is also a good idea to subscribe to a credit monitoring service. These services cannot guarantee your protection, but they do add an extra layer of security, alerting you to certain activity that may indicate fraud. If you are alerted to such activity, then you can take steps to stop criminals before they seriously damage your credit.