AMU Cyber & AI Opinion

Credit Card Skimmers: How Safe is Your Card?

Is your credit card safe from credit card skimmers? What is the economic impact of credit card skimming? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

Financial Impact of Credit Card Skimmers

A skimmer is an attachment with built-in electronics designed to capture credit card information; it fits over the card entry slot at an existing ATM or gas pump and looks very realistic. Thieves using a skimmer steal an average of 500 or more 16-digit credit card numbers and PINs (Personal Identification Numbers). With this information, criminals can charge anywhere from $2,000 to $50,000 on each individual card.

For example, thieves may use one skimmer to capture 400 numbers. If each stolen credit card number is worth $5,000 in fraudulent charges, then the thieves make $2 million. Credit card companies and consumers must then deal with the financial damage caused by the thieves.

In October 2016, Las Vegas Metro Police Department (LVMPD) captured 23 skimmers. These skimmers could have caused an impressive $46 million in financial losses.

Unfortunately, the police cannot be everywhere. The question is: How much criminal credit card skimming was not detected?

Observant Customers Are the Best Protection against Credit Card Skimmers

LVMPD Detective Jeff Grace made an excellent presentation at the November Las Vegas [link url=”” title=”InfraGard”] meeting. Grace discussed how to identify skimmers, noting that informed customers are helpful in detecting skimmers at ATMs and gas pumps.

For example, a customer can detect a skimmer by attempting to pull off the card reader on a suspicious ATM or gas pump. Skimmers are not securely attached and can normally be pulled off an ATM or gas pump, but a real card reader will remain in place. Thieves need a skimmer to be removable, because they must usually retrieve it to get the card information.

Card reader and key pad overlay are in place at time of this photo – This machine will record your card information and your pin for criminals, while also paying for gas.
Card reader and key pad overlay are in place at time of this photo – This machine will record your card information and your pin for criminals, while also paying for gas.

Encouraging Public to Report Card Skimmers to Police

The public should also be asked to report a skimmer’s presence directly to law enforcement. Reporting to the police is better than reporting to convenience store or gas station owners. These owners may not want to become involved in a court case and just want to keep their machines operational. In some cases, a small store owner was the person responsible for installing the skimmer on a store ATM.

Reporting skimmers to the police also allows them to capture important evidence for a court case, such as fingerprints and DNA. This information has led to criminal arrests.

Skimmer Duplication at the Same Gas Station

In other cases, an observant police officer found a skimmer at a gas pump and decided to check the other nine pumps in the station. When he did, he found another skimmer using a different style and technology.

The gas station actually had two different criminals stealing credit card information. Neither criminal knew that another criminal was also using a skimmer in that same location.

Evolving Technology Helps Criminals to Easily Retrieve Stolen Information

Technology improves every day. Unfortunately, it’s also improving for criminals. Thieves have now started to use Bluetooth technology to obtain credit card information from skimmers remotely, eliminating the need to physically remove the skimmer.

New Bluetooth skimmers can now remain in place on ATMs and gas pumps for a longer time without detection, impeding investigations and increasing the time needed for criminals to be apprehended. However, advances in technology also help police officers to become even more proficient in finding and arresting skimmer thieves.

The ping pong of advantages to criminals and police will keep alternating. Inventive use of new and old techniques and technologies will help solve these crimes.  Fingerprints may be an old investigative tool, but it still works on technology devices.

ABOVE PHOTO:  Skimmer card reader and keypad overlay on a gas pump. The skimmer records your card information and your PIN for criminals as you pay for your gasoline.

James R. Lint retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. James has been involved in cyberespionage events from just after the turn of the century in Korea supporting 1st Signal Brigade to the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis as the first government cyber intelligence analyst. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence with the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army.

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