If a thief wants to steal a bunch of credit cards, the easiest way for them to do it is with a skimmer. Skimmers are electronic gadgets a thief can attach to payment terminal in a store, an ATM, a gas pump or anywhere else people swipe cards.
Part of the skimmer reads the card's information when it's swiped, and another part grabs the PIN, if you use one. There are plenty of ways for skimmers to accomplish both tasks, and we've told you how to spot a number of them in the past. Unfortunately, they keep getting more sophisticated and popping up in increasingly scary places.
Historically, skimmers appeared in outdoor or easy-access areas, such as ATMs, gas pumps and cash machines. However, recently some were discovered on the self-checkout machines inside Safeway stores in Colorado, Maryland and possibly other states.
That means the thief had to put the skimmer on the machine under the eyes of security cameras and employees. Even worse, the skimmer is almost undetectable because it looks exactly like the checkout machine's faceplate and PIN pad.
Here's a photo of a skimmer taken off self-checkout machine in Maryland, courtesy of KrebsOnSecurity.
Notice that it even has the Veritone logo on it, just like the real machine. Short of tugging on the faceplate to see if it's loose, or noticing some of the buttons were a little further inset, you wouldn't know the difference.
Now, there is a fix for this and that's cards with EMV chips. Instead of swiping your card, you stick it in the payment terminal. The chip doesn't contain your card number like the card's magnetic stripe.
Instead, the chip generates a one-time authentication code. Even if a thief has a skimmer in the machine, they can't do anything with the information they get. Learn more about how EMV cards work.
You might have noticed that just about every store you go into has already upgraded to new payment terminals that support EMV cards. You've also probably noticed that very few stores, including the Safeways here in Phoenix, actually have the EMV system turned on.
If we really want to do away with the danger of skimmers, we need to start avoiding stores that don't use EMV system. That will send a message that we want better security, and it will hopefully convince stores to activate EMV faster.