Fact Checked

Card thieves getting more cunning with skimmers

A businessman stands in front of cash machine holding a credit card.Image: A businessman stands in front of cash machine holding a credit card.
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You’ve probably heard of credit card “skimmers” — devices that criminals put on ATMs or credit card readers that can read your credit card data when you swipe your card. Last year, FICO found a 10% increase in the number of payment cards that were compromised at U.S. ATMs and merchant card readers — after a 70% increase in 2016.

Credit card thieves have upped their game with new tools to access your credit card information.

Deep-insert skimmers, which are devices buried far inside a payment device, and “shimmers” are among the newest tools being used by card thieves. Shimmers can read data from even the new chip-based debit and credit cards.

What does this mean for you?

When EMV chip cards became the new standard for consumers, the idea was that credit card transactions would be better protected from in-store fraud. But with the recent form of credit card skimming using shimmers, these chip-based cards can still be compromised.

Unlike traditional skimming devices that steal data directly from the magnetic strip on a card, shimmers sit in an ATM machine or card reader and record the data from your card’s chip as the machine reads it.

“But, wait,” you may say. “Doesn’t having a chip card protect me from thieves using a clone of my magnetic strip on my credit card? Isn’t that the whole point of the chip?” You would, in fact, be correct. Every time you dip your chip card, it generates a unique code for that transaction. Fraudsters can’t duplicate that. But what they can do is use the data from the magnetic strip on the back of your card to make fake magnetic-strip cards.

Although a lot of merchants have switched over to chip card technology, some may still use the magnetic strip. If data thieves want to use the data from your card to create a counterfeit magnetic-strip card, they’ll have to use it at a place that doesn’t strictly follow chip card protocol.

Why should you care?

With new tools being used by card thieves, your chances of card theft could be on the rise. Once scammers have access to stolen data, they can use it to produce a counterfeit magnetic strip card and make unauthorized purchases online, as David Tente, an executive director with the ATM Industry Association, a nonprofit trade organization, told Consumer Reports.

Luckily there are a few things you can do to help reduce your risk of card theft.

What can you do?

Credit card skimming is no new threat. But with criminals getting savvier in how they target your credit card and debit card, consumers can take steps to try to reduce their risk of getting scammed.

There are a few steps you can take to make sure you’re extra careful when using your credit or debit card:

  • Avoid using vulnerable ATMs, if possible. Try to use ATMs in highly trafficked areas or in banks. If an ATM looks unusual or your card doesn’t slip into the machine smoothly, consider finding another machine.
  • Use a contactless payment system. Mobile wallets such as Apple Pay or Android Pay allow you to avoid using your physical card altogether.
  • Guard your PIN. Covering the PIN pad and making sure nobody is looking can be a simple way of keeping your data safe.
  • Check for signs of tampering. A good habit is giving the credit card reader a quick wiggle and making sure it’s firmly attached. If it isn’t, you might be dealing with a skimmer, and you’ll want to find another way to withdraw money or pay. Thieves sometimes place skimming devices right on top of regular payment devices.

As long as consumers are out there using credit and debit cards, card thieves will be looking for ways to get ahold of their financial data. Between practicing some of the tips above and keeping an eye on your transactions for suspicious activity, you can take steps to reduce your risk of card theft.


About the author: Brian Spychalski is a former Credit Karma freelance contributor now based in San Francisco. He has a background in corporate finance and a deep knowledge of the consumer credit market. When he’s not working, Brian can… Read more.