ATM skimmersWe talk a lot about protecting your identity online, but the offline world poses plenty of dangers as well — especially when it comes to keep your financial information safe. Although many people these days opt to use credit cards or even mobile payment apps to cover their daily costs, most of us need to have cash on hand from time to time. Where do we usually get that cash? ATMs. These machines are a great method of connecting to your bank account from anywhere and getting the cash you need instantly. However, because they are money machines, that makes them prime targets for criminals. While some criminals target the money inside the machine itself, others target the people using the machines.

One common form of ATM scam is the theft of your card data and PIN when you use one. How can scammers do this? By using a device known as an ATM skimmer, which can often be so small and unobtrusive, you might not even notice. According to the FBI, skimmers may be responsible for the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars each year. That’s why it’s important to know exactly what ATM skimmers are, what they look like and how you can protect yourself from falling victim to an ATM that has been compromised by one.

What exactly is an ATM skimmer?

A skimmer is a device that can be placed over or inside an ATM’s card reader which scans and copies your card information when you insert it. Skimmers have been around for a while, and they are getting smarter as well as smaller. Because these devices can be sophisticated in design, they are often difficult to detect, especially if people aren’t looking for them in the first place. Many skimmers will also be paired with a camera hidden somewhere near the keyboard, which records you when you enter your PIN. Sometimes, instead of a camera, scammers will place a false keyboard overlay on top of the existing keyboard. This will store keystrokes as you type. Thieves use the information gained from these devices to create a copy of your debit card, which they then use as quickly as possible to drain your bank accounts.

Some skimmers recently found in Europe have been mobile-powered, which means they transmit data via text message to the thief — so they don’t even have to return to the ATM to access the stolen data. Older designs fit on top of the card reader slot, often obscuring the flashing green light to create a visual tell for someone paying attention that something is off. However, newer designs are slimmer and sit in the throat of the actual card slot. If you are interested in seeing what skimmers look like, security blogger Brian Krebs has written an extensive series on skimmers that includes plenty of photos to give you an idea what to look for.

How can I protect myself from skimmers?

Skimmers are not just used on ATMs — they have also been found on gas pumps, POS machines at retail stores and other machines where people swipe their credit/debit cards. Although the knowledge of these scam devices might be scary to comprehend, you can take action to help protect yourself from falling victim.

1. Shield the keyboard with your hand when typing your PIN. This is a good practice whether you’re at the ATM or the grocery store, and fewer people do it than they should. By shielding the keyboard with your hand while you type your PIN, not only do you prevent any spy cameras from capturing you as you enter the data, but you can also fend off any potential thieves lurking over your shoulder. Of course, if there is a skimmer installed, this won’t stop it from reading your card data. But without your PIN, the thief can’t use that stolen data to withdraw money from your bank account — and at least a shopping spree leaves a paper trail.

2. Avoid using suspicious ATMs. It might seem like a no-brainer, but few people take the time to inspect an ATM before using it. Yes, you might be in a hurry, but that’s what scammers are counting on. Inspect the machine before inserting your card, checking for signs of damage or alterations to the card reader, unusual or overlayed keys and suspicious holes that might be concealing a hidden camera. Many ATMs have a camera installed for security purposes, but these are usually out in plain view so customers know security is being provided. It’s also wise to avoid ATMs in isolated areas or that don’t seem to be regularly monitored or maintained. ATMs inside banks are generally your best bet.

3. Be wary of card readers on doors, as well. Although the ATM inside your bank’s vestibule is often the safest option because they are more likely to be guarded by employees on a daily basis, they aren’t completely free from risk. Skimmers can be placed on the device that reads your card to unlock the door after hours. That on its own or paired with a camera on the ATM is all a thief needs to steal your card data, so be sure to look closely at any device attached to your bank’s door before swiping.

4. Consider upgrading to a chip-and-PIN card. Already in use across Europe, chip-and-PIN cards, also known as EMV cards, are designed with a microchip that encrypts data for each individual transaction — rather than the current magnetic stripe design which holds all of your information right there. Since the introduction of these cards in Europe, according to CBS News, ATM skimmers have become less popular crimes due to these cards being harder to duplicate. These new cards are being rolled out by banks in the U.S. right now, and the goal is for merchants and banks to fully upgrade their systems by the end of 2015. It is important to note that most ATMs and retail point-of-sale systems haven’t been upgraded yet, so you may still need to use the magnetic stripe for some transactions — but it doesn’t hurt to be ahead of the curve.

5. Monitor your bank statements closely. While this isn’t a measure of prevention against having your card stolen by an ATM skimmer, keeping a watchful eye on your bank statements will ensure you catch suspicious activity straight away. Placing alerts on your account to indicate a low balance is also a good safety measure, especially since this type of theft often involves withdrawing money from your account. It’s bad enough to have your debit card information stolen, but no one wants to find out when they go to pay at the grocery store checkout line.

Criminals will always be one step ahead, it seems, but knowing about the dangers out there is one way you can help protect yourself and your identity. Staying safe isn’t always easy. Learn more about protecting your identity on our identity theft protection blog.