Personal Security Tips

March 15, 2017

Author: Tom McNary

Do you remember the first time you had to use a chip reader?  I remember being in Target and waiting for what seemed like ages before the transaction finished processing.  Although chip readers add a few seconds of inconvenience to transactions they are involved in, they are being phased in across the US for good reason.  They help keep your financial information more secure.  This article discusses credit card skimmers, a device used by thieves that takes advantage of a credit card’s magnetic swiping technology.  Skimmers can be found all over Colorado and the rest of the United States.

Chip vs Swipe – Checking for Credit Card Skimmers

The advent of chip technology on credit cards has been a blessing for keeping your credit card information secure.  Although most of Europe has already adopted this technology, the US has been slow to adapt and thus most places you can use a credit card still only offer swiping technology.

Card swiping is based on technology from the early 1970’s, so it is about time that things become more modernized.  One of the primary issues with swiping your credit card as opposed to using a chip reader is that you are sending your credit card’s static 16-digit card number in for processing each time.  Often you are required to enter a Personal Identification Number (PIN) alongside each transaction, but this second layer of security can easily be circumvented.  Chip readers on the other hand, work by dynamic encryption, which means that each time you insert your chip card a new code is created and the data your card is sending is encrypted the moment your card is inserted.

There are several ways that fraudsters can target your credit card information, including phone scams, phishing attempts and using devices called card ‘Skimmers’.  The first two card theft techniques can be avoided by never giving out your card info over the phone (unless you are ordering a pizza – kind of hard to avoid there) and by exercising caution when shopping online.  The skimming technique has become more prevalent lately, and is often in places that people do not expect to look.

Credit card skimmers can easily be bought online – just Google ‘Credit Card Skimmer’ and you will find hundreds of results on eBay and other websites.  Thieves physically place the skimmer on top of the existing credit card entry slot on things like gas station pumps, convenience store card processers and ATM slots.  While your card does have a PIN in place that adds one step of security, the fraudsters will often install tiny ‘pinhole’ cameras above the keypad or even another keypad overlaid on top of the original, which allows them to record your PIN.  These devices are accompanied by a transmitter that sends out the credit card data to the person who planted the device.

An easy way to check if a skimmer is installed is to forcefully jiggle the receiver where you insert or swipe your card.  People may look at you funny, but it only takes a second or two to check and who knows how many people other than yourself you might be protecting!  You can also look for signs of tampering with the device.  In the case of gas station pumps the thieves will often place the transmitter inside of the pump itself.  Unfortunately, there are hundreds of different ways that criminals can disguise their skimmers and being on your guard is often not enough.

Another method you can use to avoid being victimized by this scam is to enable purchase alerts on your debit or credit card, which can be done through your card’s online login or by calling your card provider.  Purchase alerts send you a text notification any time a purchase is made, it can be a bit annoying but it also will allow you to immediately recognize a purchase that looks unusual.  If you do notice suspicious transactions, call your bank or card provider immediately and temporarily freeze your card (if available) or cancel the card.

Chip reader technology helps you avoid many of the issues inherent with credit card skimming, but as the technology becomes more prevalent across the US it is inevitable that scammers will concoct new schemes to steal your credit card information.  If you establish a routine of staying vigilant and keeping an eye on the purchases being made by your card you stand the best chance of mitigating the issues that come with credit card fraud.

For more information on this subject, check out Krebs on Security, or a piece on skimmers by CreditCards.com.  To learn more about the difference between Chip readers vs scanners, take a look at this article by Square, a leading credit card processor.

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About Tom McNary