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Safety & security

Skimmers: How to spot them and new ways to pay to avoid getting ripped off

The digital age added countless new opportunities for scammers to find and exploit victims. They can target your personal information, finances or both by using key loggers, public Wi-Fi, phishing, phony apps, sites, emails, social media accounts, phone calls and too many other methods to list.

The recent cryptocurrency boom has been ripe for exploitation. People with little to no experience in digital currency are signing up in hopes of turning a profit. Scam artists have jumped into the fray to take advantage of the situation. Tap or click here to see how crypto scam apps work and ways to avoid them.

Crooks don’t operate purely on a digital level nowadays. They can target you using physical means, and you won’t know it until it’s too late. Credit card skimmers have been around for some time and are still effective tools for scammers. Think that chip in your card will keep you safe? Well, they found a way around that too.

Skimmers vs. shimmers

A credit card skimmer is a device attached to a payment terminal such as an ATM or gas station pump that reads and collects data from credit and debit cards used on the machine. Skimmers can be installed inside or outside the machine and can vary in size, shape and level of technical sophistication.

The thief leaves the device installed on a machine for some time and then returns to collect the data it stole. The skimmer does not even need to be removed for this part of the scheme. The information can be retrieved remotely via smartphone. The skimmer is left to continue the job so the crook can return to collect more.

Shimmers fit inside the payment terminal and act as a shim between the chip reader and the chip on your payment card. When you insert your card, the shimmer intercepts the data from your chip.

In either case, stolen information can be used to clone cards or commit fraud in your name.

RELATED: 5 online travel scams that are spreading now

How to spot skimmers

Getting into a payment terminal is not easy, and it exposes the crook to security cameras and authorities, so some skimmers fit right over the existing card reader. Enterprising criminals also fit a hidden camera close by to record the PIN codes entered by people using the machine. An even more clever method is a fake PIN pad that fits over the real one.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Kamloops, Canada

You can take some precautions to avoid falling victim to a skimmer:

  • Stay aware – Look at the speakers, monitor, lock, card reader, keypad and any other component for scratches, glue or other signs of tampering.
  • Eye spy – Holes that look out of place may be hiding a camera.
  • That doesn’t belong – Does a component look oddly out of place? It could be a color or material that contrasts other parts of the machine. It could be sitting strangely or obscuring graphics or icons on the machine that should be seen clearly.
  • The wiggle test – Try to wiggle the card reader without inserting your card. Does it seem wobbly? If so, don’t use it.
  • Watch for broken seals – At the gas station, check for security seals on gas pump panels. The seal will read as void if the door has been opened.
  • Debit card trick – When using a debit card for payment, run it as a credit card so you don’t have to enter your pin.
  • Look at surroundings – Check nearby machines to do a comparison.
  • Is this area safe? – Avoid using machines in less crowded or shady looking locations. Indoor machines are usually safer than the ones outside.
  • Report incidents – If you notice something suspicious, report it to the bank or business running the machines.
National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) and Conexxus

How to safely pay at the pump

You can avoid using cards entirely at the gas station. Cash is one option, but do people carry much cash around anymore? Apple Pay and Google Pay let you add a credit or debit card to your phone, which you can then use in place of a card. Tap or click here to find out how to set up mobile payments.

Apple Pay is built into the iPhone, Apple Watch, Mac and iPad. You don’t need to download any app. Google Pay can be downloaded to your Android-powered phone, tablet, or watch and is also available for iOS. With either payment method, you need only to hold your device near the payment reader and confirm the transaction via PIN, password, fingerprint or facial scan.

Some Gas stations have their own apps for payment and even offer fuel rewards. Check out the apps from BPChevronExxon and Shell.

What to do if you get ripped off

Monitor your bank accounts for anything that is out of place. If you find something, call your bank or the credit/debit card company using the phone number on the back of your card. Mobile banking makes it easier to check up on your account anytime you like. Make this a regular habit!

The law limits how liable you are if your card information is stolen but this usually depends on how quick you were to report it. The card issuer may contact you about suspicious activity, but it could be too late by then. Hopefully, you discover the scam before the crook has done anything with your information.

Want to know if your information is floating around out there? Sites like HaveIBeenPwned help you to check up on yourself. Simply visit the site and enter your phone number or email address. Tap or click here for more details.

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