Skimming And Scanning: Don't Let Your Credit Cards Go Shopping Without You

So, you take last month’s credit card statement out of the envelope, look it over and realize something’s wrong. You see a string of charges that you know you didn’t make. There are stores you don't recognize in places you haven't visited. 

Did you just become the victim of a credit card scanner scam?  

So the damage has been done, but it’s not irreversible. Most credit card companies are willing to strike the unauthorized charges from your bill and refund your money—as long as you notify them within 60 days of the issued statement. But the real question is: If the card is still in my fanny pack, how did it happen?

Criminals employ a number of nefarious ways to lift your credit card and banking information without getting "go-go gadget arm" on your pockets (or fanny pack if that’s how you roll). Read below to find solutions to two forms of fraud that are widely talked about today—skimming and scanning.

Skimming credit/debit card information at point-of-sale (POS) stations

While this scam has been around for several years, skimming is still a common method of credit card fraud. Skimming occurs at point of sale (POS) systems where debit and credit cards are used to make transactions, such as ATMs, gas pumps, and cash registers. More often than not, skimming is pulled off during legitimate transactions. It is estimated that skimming costs financial institutions and consumers more than $1 billion each year.

One example of skimming occurs when thieves use a "universal key" to open gas pumps and embed a device that captures card numbers. They also position a pinhole camera nearby that records the pin numbers. Fake cards are then encoded with the information and fiscal havoc ensues.

How do skim artists do this without getting caught? Sometimes it’s an inside job, orchestrated by an employee of the institution. Other times it is just good scouting; crooks pick stations that don’t have adequate camera surveillance. And any of those other instances in between, it’s the devil’s work. Seriously...

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Scanning radio frequency identification (RFID) chips on your credit/debit card

So what’s up with the microchip that’s implanted in all the credit/debit cards these days? Well, it’s actually a radio transmitter, and this type of technology has been around since WWII. RFID chip embedment is everywhere, from shoes (inventory management) to humans (for healthcare and security reasons).

Although banks claim that RFID chips on cards are encrypted to protect information, it's been proven that scanners—either homemade or easily bought—can swipe the cardholder’s name and number. (A cell-phone-sized RFID reader powered at 30 dBm (decibels per milliwatt) can pick up card information from 10 feet away.

And while there hasn’t yet been a recorded case of RFID fraud, many experts recognize that it would be difficult to track and that the verdict is still out as to how scanners will affect consumers in the future.

Tips to Protect Yourself From Credit and Debit Card Fraud

Skimming and scanning are totally avoidable fraud tactics. Keeping your guard up during transactions is a good place to start, but here are a couple more tips.

Preventing Credit Card Skimming

Skimming as a scam has endured for so long because it's so often successful. Try these tips for foiling card skimmers:

  • Don’t use free-standing POS terminals in badly lit or deserted areas. These are the most likely targets for skimmer action.

  • Deal directly with a teller or cashier when exchanging money. ATMs and other kiosks may be convenient, but you reduce your likelihood of being skimmed by avoiding them where possible.

  • Be on the lookout for damaged card readers. Any evidence of tampering should be seen as suggesting a fraudster may be at work. 

  • Be alert for skimming devices in tourist areas. These are popular targets.

Preventing Credit Card Scanning

Whereas avoiding skimming attacks requires increased vigilance during transactions, bolstering your defenses against scanning attacks can be achieved with some gadgetry and strategy.

  • Buy a card sleeve or RFID wallet that blocks RFID transmissions

  • Stack your cards together to mitigate some of the scanner’s ability to read information

  • Leave your cards at home and only use cash in public places

While proactively outfoxing the fraudsters is an admirable plan of attack, it may not always keep you safe; crooks have a way of staying one step ahead of everyone. The best protection is being doggedly aware of your spending. This means religiously reading your credit card statements every month and keeping track of your receipts as points of reference. And as far as plastic goes, sometimes it’s just better to leave home without it.

When it comes to protecting against fraud and identity theft online, having an internet security solution with identity theft protection and secure browsing features can make the difference when it comes to online payments. 


Check out these resources on credit card skimming and scams:

Explanation of Skimming - FBI

What Is Credit Card Shimming? - Experian

Credit Card Skimmers and Shimmers: Everything You Need to Know to Stay Safe - PC Magazine

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