UPDATED: August 14, 2022

Do you usually pay through cards? You might have heard about card skimming, so you’re cautious about it. And that’s for good reasons.

Card skimming can happen at ATMs, gas stations, restaurants, and retail stores. So if you often use your credit card, you must know how to spot a credit card skimmer, so you can avoid getting your information compromised.

We reviewed the latest reports on card skimming to know the new tactics scammers might use given how fast technology evolves. We also gathered the best tips from security experts and people's real-life experiences.

Read until the end to learn the biggest red flag to watch out for in card skimming. Don’t miss out on the signs that there's a card skimmer and compromise your credit card information.

How can you check for a card skimmer?

First, let’s define a skimmer. It’s a scanning device installed on a card reader that gathers personal information, including the cardholder’s name, card number, and personal identification number (PIN). Fraudsters use it to steal money and commit identity theft.

So how does it work? 

Scammers need to physically install it, so they choose low-traffic locations to lessen the chances of getting caught. 

Usually, you’d find a skimming device on an ATM or a gas pump. Still, retail stores or restaurants can also install it to steal from customers.

A skimmer has the same design as most ATMs; that’s why card holders are unaware of their presence. So how should you check for it?

1. Examine the card reader

You can do a physical inspection. Before using an ATM or gas pump, check for alignment issues. According to Eric Florence of Security Tech, skimmers are snapped onto these readers and will pull free with a little tug.

We discovered that a protruding reader is the biggest red flag to watch out for in card skimming.

You should also try touching the card reader. If you can easily move it around, chances are, it’s not a legitimate one. Authentic card readers pass through several quality checks, so you can’t easily dismantle them.

2. Inspect the security tape

Did you know that gas pumps have a security seal over the gas dispensers? This sticker ensures that the information stored in gas pumps won't be compromised. 

So when the tape looks broken, you should avoid using the card reader because fraudsters might have tampered with it. You should also inspect the reader and look if there’s a plastic circuit board.

If you found one, that device was used by scammers to collect card information.

3. Check the keypad

Fraudsters can also install a hidden camera or fake keypad to an ATM or gas pump. So if you’re having difficulty pressing the buttons, the ATM might have been compromised.

Real ATM keypads are easy to press but will become rigid once scammers place a fake one above them.

If you want to know what a credit card skimmer looks like, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) posted a picture on its website.

Now that you can recognize a card skimmer, what should you do if you find one?

  • You should communicate with your bank because scammers might have seen your card information due to the hidden camera. You must talk to the concerned bank employees even though you didn’t put your debit or credit card inside the reader.
  • Report the incident to the gas station manager to prevent other people from becoming victims of this criminal act.
  • File a report to the police, so they can review the information you gave and catch the scammers.

While details collected by basic skimmers need to be extracted manually, advanced ones can be accessed remotely. Scammers use Bluetooth to transmit the data they steal.

Computer scientists from UC San Diego and the University of Illinois developed Bluetana, an app that detects skimmers without opening the gas pumps. However, it’s currently unavailable to the public, and only agencies can use it.

Bluetana uses an algorithm to differentiate skimmers from legitimate Bluetooth devices in as fast as 30 seconds, compared to manual inspection that can take up to 30 minutes.

Since criminals can remotely access the information from a skimming device, can your credit card be skimmed in your wallet?

It’s possible through the Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) reader, which uses radio waves to capture information from Europay, MasterCard, and Visa (EMV)-enabled chips. But scammers won’t likely put in the effort since it depends on whether a passerby has RFID-enabled chip cards.

You’ve already learned how to spot a card skimmer, but is it still a threat, considering that more than one billion people use digital wallets? 

Yes, you should still be on the lookout for skimmers, especially if you use card readers on ATMs and gas pumps.

How do you avoid a skimmer?

Your credit and debit cards hold sensitive information that scammers can use to steal your identity. Here’s what you can do to avoid skimmers.

  1. As mentioned, do a quick scan of the ATM or gas pump before taking out your card. It helps to know the warning signs of a skimmer to avoid losing money and compromising your financial data.
  2. Cover the keypad when entering your PIN because criminals might install a hidden camera along with the skimming device.
  3. Always use machines in high-traffic areas because it’s risky for scammers to put a skimmer in those locations. You may also use an ATM inside a bank or store.
  4. If you’ve seen signs of tampered gas pumps, pay inside the service station instead.
  5. Do card skimmers work on chip cards? Yes, it can also collect information from chip-enabled cards, but what it reads is the magnetic strip. We recommend avoiding the strip reader when possible because the EMV chip is more secure.
  6. You can also use mobile wallets because they don’t share your card information. Tokenization allows digital wallets to replace your account number with a unique one or “token.”

What happens if your credit card is skimmed?

You might think that the only thing scammers can steal is your money, but there are other far-reaching effects of skimming.

  1. Fraudsters may use your personal information and commit identity theft to apply for loans and open new credit and debit cards.
  2. They can transmit your card details to create counterfeit credit cards they can sell on the black market.
  3. Fraudulent charges on your bank account can ruin your credit report. You’ll have fewer loan options and higher interest rates when you have a poor credit rating.
  4. Most banks would freeze your account while investigating, limiting your access.

What to do if you think your card has been skimmed?

If you still experience fraud due to a skimmer, here are some things you need to do.

1. Contact your bank

Banks and credit card issuers use fraud detection technology and block your cards once you report the skimming incident. Your bank will cancel the compromised card and issue a new one.

You must also fill out documents to dispute fraudulent transactions. This way, you can get the money back, which can take several days to months.

2. Place a fraud alert on your credit report

A fraud alert prevents scammers from opening a new credit account or applying for a loan under your name.

It’s free to place a fraud alert. You just need to contact any of the three credit bureaus—Equifax, Transunion, and Experian. There’s no need to contact all three because if you call one of them, that credit bureau will inform the other two of the incident.

3. Change all your passwords

Once scammers collect your card information, they can use it to access your other accounts. You must change your passwords and security questions, especially on your mobile banking apps.

We also recommend setting up two-factor authentication when possible.

Protect your identity and card information

Your credit and debit card hold confidential information that scammers can use to commit different types of identity theft. 

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent this crime from happening to you. It’s helpful to examine the reader, inspect the security tape, and check the keypad to detect signs of a skimming device.

When you follow these steps, you can shop safely without worrying about stolen identity and money.