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How to protect yourself from credit card skimmers

Paying for gas with a card
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Over the past several years, most credit card users have gone from swiping their cards to the routine of inserting their chip into the card reader at checkout. A large reason for this transition was the emergence of EMV technology, believed to eliminate the risks of credit card skimmers and protect card information. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been 100 percent effective.

Cardholders are still susceptible to more traditional credit card skimmers at gas stations, which aren’t required to migrate to chip readers until 2020. Not to mention some of the unseen threats, such as the new pickpocketing technique referred to as shimming.

With the ongoing risks of credit card skimming and some new developments that put your accounts in danger, here’s what you need to know to stay on the lookout.

How to detect credit card skimmers

There are multiple types of card skimmers out there. One of the most common types are card reader overlays – plastic devices that fit over credit card processors at gas stations or at ATMs. These are sometimes obvious enough to be removed, but go to another pump or go inside to make your transaction if the machine looks fishy or feels cheap.

Your information is slightly more at risk at ATMs, due to some additional methods to snatch your data. There have been cases of fake ATM faceplates covering over a working ATM, PIN capture overlays placed overtop ATM keypads and even hidden cameras strategically set up to record your PIN and card number. The signs of a fake overlay at an ATM are similar to card reader overlays, so check for terminal features that look damaged, misfitting or tampered with.

Chip readers in general are safer, but the machines that are corrupted are tougher to detect. Shimmers can be slid into in-store card terminals and are near impossible to see without taking apart the card processor. Reported cases of shimming have come from further investigation after a card wasn’t going in and out smoothly. You may be able to notice this yourself, but retailers should be doing routine checks on their own machines.

How skimmers work

When you slide your card into a tainted credit card processor, card skimmers read the magstripe on your card and record your information. With keypad overlays, your PIN will be captured as well. Perpetrators will have to return to the crime scene when taking any of these approaches, where they’ll retrieve your information for their own use or to sell elsewhere. Typically, this requires removing their skimmer from the card terminal, hopefully giving the opportunity for a store owner, bystander or a security camera to notice.

A shimmer is inserted into a chip reader, but is only able to clone your magstripe data when trying to facilitate fraud. Compromised information can be gathered by simply removing the shimmer during what looks like paying at a chip reader, making it an easier process for perpetrators to collect. Fortunately, this technology is still brand new, rare and often ineffective.

How to avoid being compromised

The first step to avoiding putting your card information at risk is to be observant and cautious where you use your card. Scratches, oddly-fitting pieces and unfamiliar material can be dead giveaways of fraudulent card readers. You may even want to give sketchy looking terminals a nudge to see if the pieces are loose. Additionally, you should take precaution by keeping a close watch over your wallet, covering the keypad when entering your PIN and not going through with transactions if your card seems to resist when being entered.

When using an ATM, avoid machines in remote locations. Statistically, these terminals have a higher chance of being tampered with. You’ll also want to keep a lookout for loose wires and small openings that could give hidden camera access. The safest method of withdrawing cash is by heading into your bank to talk to a teller. Similarly, the easiest way to avoid skimmers at the gas pump is to pay inside. Most gas stations have chip reading terminals in the store, or you can pay with cash until filling stations update their technology.

Moving towards the future, relatively new tap-and-go terminals offer ways to pay with contactless cards and mobile wallets, taking away any worries you may have about dealing with skimming or shimming. These card processors are becoming increasingly popular worldwide and provide a secure way to pay at the counter, so take advantage wherever you can if your card is up-to-date with technology.

Written by
Joey Robinson
Credit cards contributor
Joey Robinson is a credit cards contributor for Bankrate and upon graduating with a Bachelor’s degree concentrated in Finance, Joey worked at “Big Four” (Ernst and Young) accounting firm before exploring the world of credit cards. Over the past two years, he’s shared his expertise and has brought understanding to complex topics as a writer and editor for sites like Bankrate, and NextAdvisor. His advice on avoiding common credit card fees, top balance transfer tactics and more financial tips have been featured on MSN Money and other various news publications.