Card skimmers beware: Banks, police offer tips on spotting credit card skimmers

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Credit card skimmers can be placed over any ATM or card reader. Credit card skimming is a form of credit card theft in which crooks use a small device to steal credit card information. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

It comes when you least expect it, and sometimes at the worst possible time.

Drawing some money from an ATM or paying for gas at the pump can sometimes lead to skimming.

Credit card skimming is a form of credit card theft where crooks use a small device to steal credit card information in what would seem like a legitimate credit or debit card transaction.

When a credit or debit card is run through a skimmer, the device captures all the details stored in the card’s magnetic strip.

The thief then comes back to the compromised machine to pick up the file containing all the stolen data. These instances happen everywhere, including Southwest Michigan.

Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said the county tends to see skimmers come through the area in spurts.

“Normally, a group comes thorough and puts them in at various spots,” Heit said. “It’s been about four to six months since the last string occurred. It is something to be aware of, but it happens at different times.”

Heit said in addition to ATMs, gas stations closer to highways seem to be targeted most by skimmers because it’s where most visitors stop and leave.

Heit said it varies on how long the scam artists keep the skimmers in place. However, it’s always best to be mindful of anything suspicious.

Randy Reimers, who serves as the Fifth Third Bank community president in Southwest Michigan, said the small device that draws information off a credit card is normally left at a specific location for less than 24 hours.

By doing this, the perpetrators are less likely to get caught.

Reimers said the best way to avoid falling victim to a skimmer is to pay for gas inside the store or draw money from inside a bank. However, if it’s later in the day and the customer’s only option is to use a machine outside, there’s another thing to look for.

If a customer is about to use an ATM or card reader outside a gas station that they are familiar with, it’s best to look for any subtle differences.

“If anything looks out of place on an ATM or something appears to have changed from what it normally looks like – avoid using it,” Reimers said.

The typical ATM skimmer is a device smaller than a deck of cards that fits over the existing card reader.

When approaching an ATM, check for obvious signs of tampering at the top of the ATM, near the speakers, the side of the screen, the card reader itself and the keyboard.

If something looks different, such as a different color or material, graphics that aren’t aligned correctly, or anything else that doesn’t look right, don’t use the ATM. The same is true for credit card readers.

Reimers said most fraudsters will apply their skimmer on the farthest pump from the entrance to the gas station to avoid being caught on camera. Plus, those are the gas pumps that are regularly used.

“The scariest thing I was told was the card numbers could be held for up to a couple years and then a few years later they start using them,” Reimers said. “You might not know your card has been comprised. If you see unauthorized activity, alert your credit card company and get it canceled.”

Even if the credit cards have a chip, the data will still be on the card’s magnetic strip in order to be compatible with systems that won’t be able to handle the chip.

Now, months after the U.S. rollout of EMV cards, some merchants still require customers to use the magnetic stripe.

Even if there are no visual differences, a simple push or prod on the machine’s facade can ensure everything is legitimately working.

ATMs are solidly built and don’t have any loose parts. An illegal skimmer is meant to come off quickly when its owner comes back to retrieve it. So, by giving a quick pull of protruding parts like the card reader or seeing if the keyboard is attached, the cardholder can ensure they aren’t being scammed.

“The one thing to remember is don’t be embarrassed if it happens to you,” Reimers said. “We have seen videos and the crooks are really good at what they do. The way some of these skimmers work, as a banker for 30 years, I would not have known it was on the machine.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 4, 2017)

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