App version: 0.1.0

ATM Skimming and How to Identify ATM Skimmers

What Is ATM Skimming and How to Prevent It
Jacqueline DeMarco
Jacqueline DeMarcoUpdated August 11, 2023
Share this article:
Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
When using an ATM to deposit or withdraw cash, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of ATM skimming. ATM skimming is a form of fraud that involves illegally installing devices on ATMs that can capture the PIN of the cardholder who is using the machine and record it. This can lead to theft and can be quite stressful for the cardholder. Keep reading to learn more about what card skimming methods are and how to prevent card skimming. 

What Is ATM Skimming?

An ATM allows banking customers to access cash, deposit checks, or confirm their current bank account balance. ATMs can come in handy in a pinch, but they can also fall prey to fraud and theft. ATM skimming, also known as card skimming, can occur when a criminal installs a skimming device onto an ATM machine. They do this so they can record the PINs of individuals who use the ATM and then they take the data they collect to make fake credit or debit cards. They can use the fake cards to steal money directly from the victim’s bank accountMore than $1 billion each year is lost to card skimming with both consumers and financial institutions being hurt by this theft.Recommended: 7 Tips to Avoid Debit Card Fraud and Scams 

What Do ATM Skimmers Look Like?

One of the best ways to avoid falling prey to card skimming scams is to check ATM machines for skimming devices before using one.Some of the visual characteristics of an ATM skimmer can include:
  • Device resting over the original card readers
  • Device may be inserted in the terminal, in the card reader, or along exposed cables
  • Pinhole camera facing keypad or keypad overlay
It’s always best to be aware and check for these devices prior to inserting your card.

How to Visually Identify a Skimmer at an ATM

To spot an ATM card skimmer, the consumer has to look carefully. ATM card skimmers tend to be hidden and hard to spot at first glance. A good first step is to review the card reader to see if it looks intact or if it has been tampered with in any way. Is anything missing or off alignment? Does it appear to be raised in certain areas or is a part of the machine covering another area of the machine that should be exposed?Next, physically inspect the card reader. The user can feel around the card reader to see if it seems to be coming apart in any way. Properly installed card readers should be fully intact and secure.

Can Chip Cards Be Skimmed?

To help reduce the amount of debit card skimming-related theft, chip-enabled cards were designed to be more difficult to steal from. However, the question remains, can chip cards be skimmed? Unfortunately, even with the additional layer of security that card chips introduce, theft still occurs. To adapt to this new security effort, criminals turned to card “shimming,” which is essentially just a more advanced version of skimming. Shimming involves reading and stealing card chip information. It’s still important to look out for signs of skimming or shimming devices even when using a debit card with a chip at an ATM.Recommended: Contactless Credit Cards: Pros and Cons

How to Prevent Card Skimming

Not sure how to prevent card skimming? Taking these steps can help consumers protect themselves.
  1. Carefully inspect the keypad and card reader. Look out for any signs of foul play. If it appears the machine has been tampered with in any way, don’t use it. 
  2. Compare other machines. If the ATM is located by another ATM, check to see how that one looks visually. Does it appear to be in much better condition? Get a baseline for what ATMs should look like when they haven’t been tampered with.
  3. Watch out for hidden cameras. Spotting a camera near an ATM machine (not a security camera) can be a sign someone is recording PIN codes. 
  4. Contact the business hosting the ATM. If something does seem amiss, contact the business where the ATM is located or the ATM owner to report these concerns. 
  5. Use ATMs in better locations. If there is a choice of where to use an ATM, consumers want to look for one in a high-traffic or well-lit area. Ideally, using an ATM inside of a business or bank branch is safer than using one outside. The harder it is to get away with installing a skimming device, the likelihood that the ATM is safe to use increases. 

What to Do if You Think Your ATM Card Has Been Skimmed

If someone has a reason to believe their ATM card fell prey to skimming, they need to act quickly and report it to their bank. One of the best ways to catch signs of theft or debit card fraud as soon as possible is to keep a regular eye on bank statements. It’s even possible to set up new transaction alerts that will text or email the account holder whenever a new transaction occurs. That way, if they get an alert for a transaction they know they didn’t make, they can report it quickly to their bank. The sooner someone reports the unauthorized use of their debit card, the more financial protection they’ll receive. 
  • Report loss within two days: maximum loss is $50
  • Report loss from two to 60 days: maximum loss is $500
  • Report loss after 60 days: Account holder could be responsible for all money taken
Calling the bank or credit union is the first step to take toward remedying the situation. To start, the bank will cancel the debit card and issue a new one so the account cannot be accessed anymore. 

The Takeaway

ATM skimming is when someone installs a device on an ATM machine that captures cardholders’ PINs. The person then uses that information to create fake debit cards and commit debit card fraud.To reduce your chances of this happening to you, make sure to inspect the ATM machine for any suspicious devices before inserting your card. You should also use ATMs in busy, well-lit areas to better protect yourself from ATM skimming.If you’re looking to earn interest on your savings account, consider Lantern by SoFi. Lantern allows you to compare high-yield savings accounts, including rates, minimum balance requirements, and fees.Compare high interest online savings accounts and find today’s best rate with Lantern.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I tell if an ATM has been skimmed
Can skimming happen at non-bank ATMs?
What should I do if I see someone tampering with an ATM?
Photo credit: iStock/gece33

About the Author

Jacqueline DeMarco

Jacqueline DeMarco

Jacqueline DeMarco is a personal finance writer and editor based in Southern California. While she spends the bulk of her time writing about complex financial issues, she also tackles a variety of subjects ranging from food to fashion to travel. Her work can be found across dozens of publications such as Credit Karma, LendingTree, Northwestern Mutual, The Everygirl, and Apartment Therapy.
Share this article: