Buyer beware: skimming dangers on and offline

Sometimes a camera is installed near ATMs and check-out registers to record the PIN or zip code you enter when making a debit card withdrawal or purchase. Use your hand as a shield to hide your PIN entry. Photo: William Grootonk

Every summer brings the familiar family vacation: maybe a road trip or a flight overseas, plus some well-earned out-of-town shopping. Summer is also the time to get an early jump on back-to-school sales. Each of these activities brings possibly unexpected dangers. By now you are all alert for phishing and spam trying to harvest your passwords or other identity information. But even the best cyber hygiene may not protect against all threats.

One common way to steal money is to directly access personal information from your credit or debit card using devices called skimmers. These devices, placed over a card slot, copy your credit or debit card information from the magnetic strip on your card upon insertion. Skimmers have gotten smaller and more sophisticated and can even transmit the stolen data wirelessly.

Whenever you insert your credit card into any device, check to make sure the slot is secure — skimmers are often placed over a legitimate slot. Some have a nearby camera installed to record the PIN or zip code you enter. Use your hand as a shield when entering information. At gas stations, try to use the pumps within view of the cashier or attendant. Be careful if a card is required for entry to an ATM booth; sometimes the door slot may have a skimmer attached.

Use familiar ATMs. Every ATM is at risk for skimmers. The standalone ATM that sits in a rural convenience store is more likely to be compromised than the one at your bank branch in a well-trafficked area. Use ATMs in view of people. Some ATMs have been physically broken into to install a wiretap — the damage would be covered by suspicious decals.

Check balances frequently. This includes credit and bank statements. Sometimes “micro” transactions (charges in a very small amount) are used simply to verify if a card is still good. Be wary of these.

Additionally, should a travel agency or tour company ask for scans of your passport or credit card to be emailed to them, kindly ask for another method of transmission (by fax, for example). Email accounts are easily compromised, so do not send private information via email.

A little bit of caution can go a long way, so be careful. Have a fun and safe summer!

Art Lee