Is this Card Reader Safe? How to Spot Credit Card Skimmers

Base Insights

Most credit card readers are safe and secure. However, in some instances using one can result in your information being stolen. Credit card skimmers are devices that criminals attach like a clip-on to legitimate card readers in card present environments such as at an ATM or gas pump in order to steal your information and access your account. You insert your card, punch in your PIN or ZIP code, and proceed with your transaction like you normally would. But in the meantime, the device has recorded your information to be retrieved later on by the bad guys.

Credit card skimmers are typically very advanced point of sale (POS) machines developed to match the look and form factor of the card reader they are attached to. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that while credit card skimming is not a new type of crime, the card skimmers continue to evolve to become smaller and harder to detect. However, if you take a close look, you can often see signs that something isn’t right, choose not to make your credit card transaction, and protect your account information.

Inspect That Credit Card Reader Before You Proceed

In today’s busy world, we’re often hurrying from one task to the next. However, one place where it pays to slow down is credit card transactions where your card is physically present. Whether you are filling up at a gas station or making an ATM withdrawal, it is important to pause and give the credit card reader a visual and physical inspection before you insert your card.

Below are seven red flags you should be looking for to determine if a credit card skimmer is being used. If you spot any of them, do not proceed with your transaction.

  • The color, texture, or other characteristic of the reader seems out of place. If, for example, the base of a card reader is dark gray and has a textured finish but there is a segment closest to you that is light gray and smooth, this should get your attention.
  • The design of the reader is “off.” A credit card reader that sticks out farther from the machine than you would expect may be a sign that it has a card skimmer attached.
  • The keyboard feels funny. Does the keypad seem raised or do the keys feel loose? If so, there may be a bogus keypad over the legitimate one.
  • There is an out-of-place pinhole in the housing around the interface. Criminals can insert tiny cameras that focus on the keypad to see what code you enter. If a machine has odd holes or openings of any kind, this is cause for concern.
  • The card reader is different than those on adjacent machines. All of the card readers on a group of ATMs or gas pumps should be the same. If one is different than the others, do not use it.
  • The security tape on a gas pump has been tampered with. Gas stations will often seal the door that criminals must open to insert a card skimmer with colored tape that bears an official serial number. If the tape is damaged or there are signs that the door has been forced open, do not use that pump.
  • You see other users avoiding a device. If as you approach an ATM, gas pump, or other device that is used in card present mode you see people walking or driving away without making a transaction, they may have spotted something that made them uneasy.

Other Ways to Protect Your Credit Card Information

In addition to inspecting the credit card reader before your card present transaction, there are other steps you can take to help protect your credit card information. You should:

  • Cover the keypad with your free hand as you enter your access code.
  • Avoid using credit card readers in low-traffic areas. While it doesn’t take long to attach a card skimmer, criminals are less likely to alter a machine that is in plain sight of people passing by or police officers on patrol.
  • Pay inside a gas station rather than at the remote POS terminal on the pump.
  • Consider using a skimmer detection app. There are apps that claim to enable a smartphone to spot a card skimmer.
  • Use your credit card as opposed to your debit card in card present transactions. Credit card fraud may be easier to resolve with a provider than the loss of funds from a bank account.
  • Enable account activity alerts if available, and check your accounts frequently for fraudulent activity. Notify your provider immediately if you see anything suspicious.

What to Do if You Suspect a Reader Has a Credit Card Skimmer

If you suspect that a credit card reader has a card skimmer attached, you should notify both the business owner and the police. If you are wrong, there is no harm done. If you are right, you help protect both the information of other users and the reputation of the business. If you have completed a transaction and then see something that makes you uncomfortable, contact your card provider immediately. They can take steps to prevent fraudulent charges.

Cybercriminals are creative and persistent. However, with awareness and vigilance, you can keep yourself from becoming a victim.

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