When you swipe your card to buy gas or slide it into an ATM for cash, identity thieves may be able to gain access to your account number using a card skimmer. Once thieves have your card number, they can program it onto a dummy card and use it to tank your credit or drain your bank account.
The most common type of skimmer fits seamlessly over legitimate card slots a consumer would use, such as an ATM. Card readers that have been compromised usually look identical to their legitimate counterparts. Less-sophisticated handheld skimmers can be bought online for less than $200. With these, a retail clerk or restaurant server can secretly swipe your card through their device after using it legitimately for your actual purchase. These are riskier for the thief, since they could be caught red-handed.
While this crime isn't new, incidents have been popping up more and more in the news recently.
A card-skimming ring nabbed in Houston was able to gain account data for 375 people from 35 skimming devices attached to drive-through ATMs. One man in the Chicago area is charged with skimming 200 debit card numbers from dozens of bank ATMs. A California man was arrested for using a skimming device on several pay-at-the-pump card slots.
Recently, a Texas restaurant worker was caught on surveillance video swiping customer cards on a handheld device. An airport employee in Florida was charged with skimming more than 100 customers' cards at the parking garage.
Experts recommend not using an ATM or other card reader, such as those at gas pumps or self-service grocery stores, if it doesn't look right to you. Sometimes the skimmers are so poorly installed that a quick tug will remove them. If that happens, alert the bank or store management and police. Since gas station pumps and ATMs are the most common targets, experts also suggest paying inside or withdrawing from inside the bank, as those machines are less vulnerable.
Some store employees are legitimately using handheld devices to get payments, such as the Apple Store or small businesses that deal primarily in cash but want to offer the convenience of card payments. To guard against handheld skimmers, experts say it's best to keep your card in sight whenever possible and to pay with cash if clerks or servers seem to be concealing their transactions.
Even the most vigilant consumers can find themselves victimized by card skimming. If you discover unusual transactions or other indications of skimming, contact your bank or credit card issuer immediately.