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Skimming attacks on ATMs skyrocket

By Claes Bell · Bankrate.com
Monday, April 25, 2016
Posted: 10 am ET
Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The number of ATMs being turned into identity theft machines by criminals is increasing at an alarming rate.

Instances of thieves installing so-called skimmers -- devices that capture card numbers, often accompanied by cameras to capture PINs -- on ATMs rose 546% between 2014 and 2015. That's according to a report this month from FICO, which monitors hundreds of thousands of ATMs in the U.S. through its Card Alert Service.

The danger is greatest at nonbank ATMs, which are hit with skimming attacks at a rate 10 times that of bank ATMs, according to FICO.

"They are targeting nonbank ATMs, which are more vulnerable -- in 2015, nonbank ATMs accounted for 60 percent of all compromises, up from 39% in 2014," said TJ Horan, vice president of fraud solutions at FICO, in a statement.

Thieves adapting to detection efforts

The dramatic increase in attacks may actually be a result of thieves adapting to efforts to curtail skimming.

ATM operators appear to be getting a lot better at figuring out when ATMs are compromised. According to the FICO report, the average duration of a skimming attack in 2014 was 36 days; in 2015 it was just 14 days.

That sounds like a good thing, and it is -- the average number of cards hit by each compromise was cut in half.

But thieves seem to be dealing with this shorter "lifespan" for their skimming devices by installing a greater volume of devices to try and capture the same overall amount of card information. And that's likely to mean a larger number of ATMs getting attacked overall.

Vigilance is key

So what can you do to avoid being a victim? You can try to spot loose or poorly-made panels or pieces around the card slot. That might be a tell that a thief has installed a skimming device. But skimmers have grown much more sophisticated in recent years, and it can sometimes be very difficult to spot them.

Swearing off ATMs, or at least nonbank ATMs, may be another way to reduce the chance of fraud. But retailer payment terminals are also frequently hit with skimmers, which thieves have gotten down to a science, so it's hard to avoid the risk of skimming-related ID theft entirely without giving up cards altogether.

The best course of action is to keep a close eye on your statement so you can quickly identify fraudulent activity and report it. Reporting fraud in a timely manner is essential in making sure you don't get stuck with the bill.

What do you think? Have you ever been the victim of a skimming attack?

Follow me on Twitter: @claesbell.

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