Criminals are always looking for new ways to rip us off. Whether it's ransomware, phishing attacks or ATM skimmers, we constantly need to be on the lookout to stay protected.
Scammers are even finding ways to use technology against us. That's why you need to know how thieves are now able to steal your PIN in a matter of seconds.
How thieves can steal your PIN
Researchers have discovered that covering your hand while typing in your PIN code isn't a secure enough procedure. That's because some high-tech thieves are using thermal cameras to steal your PIN.
How this works is, once you type in your PIN code, a thief can take a picture of the heat marks left behind on the screen with a thermal camera. They are then able to figure out the order that you typed the numbers in by the strength of the heat marks. The last number you enter will show up stronger and the first number will be lighter.
Image: Example of how criminals can steal your PIN using thermal cameras. (Source: University of Stuttgart)
This doesn't only expose the PIN code to unlock your phone either. Thieves can use this technique anywhere you type your credit or debit card PIN, such as a grocery store, gas station or ATM.
Researchers at the University of Stuttgart studied this technique of stealing PIN codes. They found that they were able to successfully decipher a users' PIN 90 percent of the time if the thermal image was captured in 15 seconds or less from the time the PIN was entered.
It's even worse for Android users. The researchers were able to figure out the correct pattern 100 percent of the time for those who use a finger-drawn pattern code. They even had more time to take the thermal image, up to 30 seconds after the pattern was drawn.
Watch the following video from a YouTuber demonstrating how simple it is for a thief to take a thermal image of a PIN.
How to protect your PIN code
The researchers that discovered this PIN stealing possibility have a very simple solution to stop thieves from getting your code. Here are their suggestions:
- Smartphone - Simply place your hand on the display screen after entering your PIN. This should remove all thermal traces.
- Point-of-sale (POS) - When typing your PIN at locations such as a grocery store, gas station or ATM, place a few fingers on buttons that are not part of your code. Hold them there while you type your PIN in and leave them there for a few seconds after. This should make the digits that show up on an infrared picture useless to the scammer. They will not be able to figure out which buttons are actually part of the PIN and which were decoys.
Having a thief steal your PIN code by itself isn't a great danger to you. However, if they have installed a skimmer on a POS and get your PIN, your bank account is in serious trouble.
If it's the PIN to your phone, the thief would need to get their hands on it to cause problems. This is why you should never leave your gadget where someone can take it without your knowledge. Don't leave it on your desk at work, or anywhere for that matter, if you need to leave the room for any purpose.