Do you know what a card skimmer is? It's a little device that can be attached to anything you swipe your debit or credit card through. It stores your information for later download by its owner. And in today's troubled economy, card skimmers and other ATM scams are more common than ever.
Recently, the Consumerist blog posted a story about someone finding a skimmer on a WaMu ATM. It's a frightening notion. The skimmer, pictured above, looks just like the ATM's normal card slot. Fortunately, the user noticed that it seemed askew, and pulled it off. He then alerted the WaMu branch manager.
How can you avoid being the victim of a card skimmer? First, always take a second to inspect the ATM you're about to use. This doesn't take much effort -- just look at the card slot and see if anything seems strange about it. If it does, alert a bank employee. Better safe than sorry.
Second, if you have a choice, it's better to use an ATM located at a bank branch then at a standalone kiosk, and both are preferable to using unaffiiliated cash machines at places like bars and gas stations. Those ATMs are less likely to be carefully overseen by people who care about their security, such as bank employees.
A related scam to watch out for is the "Lebanese Loop." Thieves will insert a sticky film into the machine that traps your card. Once you abandon the ATM to seek help, the scammer will pull your card out manually. The clearest visual sign that someone is trying to pull this scam on you is a thin, clear tab sticking out of the card slot.
Finally, beware of low-tech thieves who may simply be trying to observe your PIN number over your shoulder. Don't use an ATM if someone is lingering nearby. Stand close to the keypad and cover it with your other hand. And if something does go wrong -- your card gets stuck in the machine, or the cash doesn't come out -- accept help only from a bank employee. Sadly, many good samaritans these days are nothing more than con men.
Check out scambusters.org for a full list of common ATM scams and how to avoid them.