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TheStreet Open House

4 Ways to Protect Yourself Against Card Skimmers

NEW YORK ( LowCards.com) -- Card skimming is now a sophisticated crime that can happen anywhere you swipe your credit or debit card.

There are usually no signs your card was skimmed, but by using the stolen debit card and PIN, a thief can drain all of the money quickly from your bank account. Stolen account numbers can also be sold to online shoppers.

Thieves can insert skimmers -- sold on the Web along with the software to run them -- into card reader sleeves and hide tiny cameras nearby to record PINs.

A skimmer can look like part of the ATM and be very hard to see. After the card is swiped, data on the magnetic stripe are picked by the skimmer's card reader. The information can then be stored on the memory of the skimmer device or transmitted wirelessly to a secondary location.

The camera can be smaller than an eraser head and look like part of the machine. Memory cards can store video footage and details of thousands of unknowing bank customers.

There are some steps you can take to protect against skimmers:

  • Before swiping your debit card, give a small tug on the card swiper. If there is any movement or the device comes off, don't use that ATM -- it could be a sign a thief has inserted a skimmer.
  • You may be able to keep the thief from seeing your PIN by covering the keyboard with your free hand and blocking the view of a camera.
  • Check your account statement regularly for suspicious charges or withdrawals.
  • If you think your card has been part of a skimming scam, contact your financial institution immediately.

Chip-and-pin technology could provide better protection against skimmers. These cards use microchip and PINs instead of the magnetic stripe. The embedded chips are encrypted to prevent skimmers from accessing card information. But adoption of these cards has been slow in the United States because it requires a new ATM system and a large investment to install suitable terminals.

Bill Hardekopf is chief executive of LowCards.com, which compares and rates more than 1,000 credit cards. He is the co-author of "The Credit Card Guidebook."

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