Skip to main content

ATM users, be on guard!

No matter how careful you may be with your account information, tech-savvy criminals can still access your account after you make a withdrawal by using electronic tools called skimmers.

Skimmers are portable electronic devices that record your bank account information. Consumerist reports that a reader found a skimmer attached to a Washington Mutual ATM (Stock Quote: WM) recently.

"The card reader didn't look right, like it wasn't completely attached," a reader quoted as Dan told the site. Dan reportedly pulled the skimmer off and alerted authorities. "It was set up so that ATM cards would first go through the skimmer and then into the ATM itself, so you'd never know the difference."

But you'd certainly know the difference when your bank account was cleaned out. The most popular skimming product has a 512 kb memory chip capable of storing 3,000 different accounts, according to Jim Pettitt, director of strategy and planning for Diebold Inc. (Stock Quote: DBD). According to one site, a one day net for skim scammers can be as high as $50,000.

How Skimming Works
Hank Monaco, vice president for ADT Security Services (Stock Quote: TYC) says skimming is a multi-step operation.

Once a skimmer is attached to an ATM machine, the criminal must also place a miniautre camera in a spot where it can capture you as you’re dialing your PIN. Margot Mohsberg, a spokesperson for the American Bankers Association, says the camera is usually fixed above the keypad, but a scam artist may also stand close behind someone as they dial in.

Next, the criminals wait as information from each transaction is loaded into the skimmer and time stamped. At the same time, the video camera records each customer as they punch in their codes.

According to Pettitt, once the criminals have retrieved both the skimmer and the camera, the time stamped account information is synched on a laptop computer.

Pettitt  says criminals then make a bootleg copy of your card, enter your PIN from any location and drain your account.

How to Protect Yourself
Here are a few helpful hints to help protect yourself and your card:

1. Check out the ATM before you use it. Banks tend to check their ATMs for skimming devices every day, Mohsberg says, but even their best efforts aren’t 100% effective. Look at the machine before you stick your card in. If the card reader doesn’t match those of surrounding machines, or if the reader looks loose, you may want to use another machine. Stay away from strange ATMs, too. Cash machines in convenience stores or gas stations usually charge high fees, anyway.

2. Cover your codes. Cameras are everywhere, but you can still protect  your privacy. Mohsberg suggests that you place your hand over the keypad as you enter your PIN. You may feel a bit like a school kid,  but at least you’ll lessen the risk of losing your cash.

3. Don’t rely on strangers. You never know who’s watching you, so be wary of good Samaritans who are eager to help you with your card, particularly if it’s lodged in the machine. Ask a bank representative for help before you accept a stranger's assistance.

4. Check your balance regularly. The best way to protect yourself from a scam is to keep tabs on your balance. Although a large percentage of banks will cover your loss, according to Mohsberg, there is a chance that you could find yourself liable for the full amount if you don’t report the fraud within a month.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at