The next time you use a credit card to pay for gas or use an ATM to get cash, keep an eye out for card skimmers.
These devices are illegal card readers attached to payment terminals like those on gas pumps or ATMs. They grab data off a credit or debit card’s magnetic stripe, which can then be sold or used to buy things online.
Skimmers are designed to look like part of the overall design of the gas pump or ATM, and they can be hard to spot at first glance. Sometimes, they are even hidden inside the machines themselves.
“The risks are real,” said Kenneth Allen, senior vice president of Identity and Fraud for Equifax. Allen has worked in the identity and fraud field for 20 years and has experience in card skimming techniques and prevention.
While evolving ATM technology and card chips are improving security, the risks remain as long as cards carry a magnetic strip, he said.
A little detective work before you pump gas or get cash, however, can help you avoid skimmers. Here are some recommendations:
Examine the ATM or gas pump before using it. Is anything damaged or showing signs of tampering? In the case of gas pumps, compare the pump to another one to see if they look the same, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Try to move the card reader to see if it’s loose. Allen recommended “a hard shake.” He tries to spin or turn the card reader to see if it will move. “If it looks like it’s been tampered with or not fitting right, I would steer away.”
Don’t assume that a blinking light is secure. Just because a card reader has a flashing light or is see-through plastic doesn’t mean it’s not fraudulent, Allen said.
Never use a PIN on gas pumps. “You don’t want to use a debit card on gas pumps,” Allen said. Fraudsters can use hidden cameras on ATMs or gas pumps to record your PIN – and it can be harder to spot the cameras on a gas pump, he said. If you must use a debit card, you can run your debit card as a credit card to avoid entering a PIN. On an ATM, use your other hand to cover the hand you’re using to enter the PIN.
Stay aware. ATMs in indoor or high-traffic areas may be safer than more secluded ones. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends using gas pumps in view of the gas station attendant.
While technology is evolving, so are skimmers, Allen said. Some are installed inside ATMs, making it impossible to tell a skimmer is present, but those aren’t seen as often as skimmers stuck on machines.
Some of the larger financial institutions have gone “contactless” with ATMs, allowing consumers to use Apple Pay® or Android Pay™ instead of using their card. A few gas pumps are also contactless technology.
“It actually is more secure than using your card,” Allen said. “If you get used to using contactless, and if a machine has contactless, use it.”
EMV chip readers for credit or debit cards likely won’t be widely seen on gas pumps for a few years, Allen said. But even chip readers won’t eliminate the risk of skimming, as a card’s magnetic strip can still be read when the card is inserted.
A good way to help detect fraud quickly, Allen said, “is turn on purchase notifications (when available) for your credit cards, banks, financial institutions.” You’ll get notified via email or text, often within seconds, of a purchase, allowing you to spot fraudulent activity early.
Another way to detect fraudulent activity is by monitoring your transaction history for any purchases you don’t recognize.
If your credit or debit card information has been compromised, report it to your bank or credit card issuer as soon as possible. Use the number on the back of the card, Allen said, and don’t respond to any emails you might get. Fraudsters may send emails designed to look like they’re from your bank or credit card company asking for your personal information.
Also, consider placing a fraud alert on your credit reports. While a fraud alert can’t stop a thief from using stolen card information, it encourages businesses to take extra steps to confirm your identity before extending new credit in your name. That can make it more difficult for a fraudster to open new credit accounts using your information.
You can also lock your credit reports or place a security freeze on your credit reports. Both a freeze and a lock help prevent certain access to your credit reports, but they don’t work in exactly the same way. Learn more about the differences between the two. While a freeze or credit report lock won’t prevent a thief from using your stolen card information, they can help prevent access to your credit reports to open new credit accounts in your name.
The information contained in this blog post is designed to generally educate and inform visitors to the Equifax Finance Blog. The blog posts do not give, and should not be assumed to provide, personalized tax, investment, real estate, legal, retirement, credit, personal financial, or other professional advice. Before making any financial decision, you should always consult with the appropriate professionals who can explain your options, rights, and legal responsibilities, and advise you on any tax, legal, credit, or business implications that may result from those decisions. The views and opinions expressed by the authors of blog posts are their own views and may not be the views or opinions of Equifax, Inc. and/or its affiliates.