Before Jay Foley inserts his bankcard into an ATM slot, he sticks his finger in first. Then, he wiggles it.
"If any portion of it wiggles with my pinky, I walk away because odds are somebody has slapped a skimmer on the front," says Foley, executive director of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center. "That applies to any kind of payment slot you might run across, such as gas station pumps. Those are favorite places for thieves to work now."
A skimmer is a device that reads and records all the account information stored electronically on the magnetic stripe of an ATM card.
Its mere existence is proof that if you thought familiar, ubiquitous automated teller machines were much too low-tech to attract high-tech cyber-thieves, you need to think again.
Fraudsters have returned to ATMs in force as a favorite fishing hole for that prize catch: your debit card.
With a little light mechanical tampering, thieves can "harvest" your account details and PIN number in seconds, then use them to either produce a "clone" card or to simply shop online until your account runs dry.
"The number of victims we get from debit fraud or ATM fraud is growing every year, and it's growing significantly," Foley says.
ATM crime is increasing now that stepped-up fraud detection software on the credit card side has made signature cards more difficult to attack. Increasingly, thieves are preying on more vulnerable, PIN-based debit cards.
Doug Johnson, vice president and senior adviser of risk management policy for the American Bankers Association, acknowledges that ATM skimming may be getting worse.
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"We have seen some increase in reports of ATM skimming that have been reported by the media," he says.
Identity theft resulting from ATM and debit-card crime is increasing, according to a 2005 study by Gartner, an information technology research and advisory company.
Johnson reminds nervous customers that banks issuing debit cards cover most of the losses associated with skimming as a matter of course.