Ever since I heard a rumor of an ATM that had been set up in a hotel lobby to steal card numbers, I've been a paranoid user of cash machines. As the story went, the machine didn't dispense cash or even account balances. All it delivered was an error message, but only after customers had swiped their cards and entered their PIN.
The story seemed so plausible -- I'm a fan of crime fiction, after all -- that ever since I heard it, I've preferred to get cash at my own bank's machine. Sure, I could be paranoid, allowing my behavior to be strongly influenced by what might have been just an urban legend, but today an alert came across my desk from the Better Business Bureau that made me feel justified. Not only is the fake ATM a real crime, it's a common one, though a modification to an existing ATM usually does the trick.
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In this scheme, criminals retrofit ATMs with a card reader that stores the magnetic information of customer cards. They then put that data onto a blank card to make transactions -- or cash withdrawals. For withdrawals, they also install a small camera to capture the customer typing in the PIN. Thus, with a small investment of time and equipment, they have everything they need to grab cash from the bank accounts of unsuspecting ATM users.
According to the BBB alert, "ATM skimmers are close to reaping $1 billion annually from unsuspecting consumers. Javelin Strategy & Research estimates that one in five people have become victims."
It's hardly an urban myth. In fact, I think I am revisiting my previous paranoia and considering becoming yet more cautious. Installing a skimming device and a camera is a quick operation, so even the ATM I prefer in the well-lit parking lot of my own bank could fall prey. According to the BBB, in addition to using ATMs that are clean, well lit, and in good repair, I should give it a good visual examination each time I use it. If part of the reader apparatus seems loose, move on -- or pull on it and see what happens.