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Everything you need to know about skimming fraud

Man fills up his car with gas at a gas station pump
April 07, 2020

By Claire Hegstrom

You may not have heard about skimmers in recent news, but it’s a larger concern than the media reflects. The U.S. Secret Service has been on a nationwide hunt for card skimming devices, and on average detects and destroys 20-30 of them at gas pumps weekly. Are skimmers avoidable? And what do you do if your card has been compromised? Get one step ahead of debit and credit card fraudsters with these tips on how to avoid, spot and report skimming devices. 

What is a skimming device and how does it work

Skimmers are plastic information scanners made to look and feel exactly like normal parts of a frequently visited card reader, such as an ATM or gas pump. Usually the skimmer will be a piece that fits directly over the slot where your card is inserted. There can also be a PIN pad overlay placed to detect the PIN associated with your card. Pinhole cameras are also commonly used to visually record you entering the PIN to your debit or credit card.

A skimmer works by reading the magnetic strip on your card, which holds all of your card information including your full name, card number, expiration date and CVV (card security code). The device is then either later physically removed and used to download the information of hundreds of cards, or the skimmer is connected by Bluetooth and will transmit information to the offsite criminal. Duplicate cards can then be printed in a fraud card lab, effectively giving unlimited access to funds in your account to criminals.

How to spot and avoid skimmers

The use of skimmers has become more and more prominent at ATM and gas pump card readers, most commonly in tourist or frequently visited locations. However, it is quite easy to spot these devices, and in some cases avoid them all together.

1. Run your debit card transactions as credit whenever possible.

Criminals rely on getting your PIN to authorize fraudulent transactions later on, however a PIN is not required when you choose “credit” at the gas pump.

2. Choose gas pumps that are in direct eyesight of the gas station attendant.

Fraudsters are less likely to place skimmers on gas station pumps that attendants can closely watch. For the same reason, it can also help to use ATMs in well-lit and heavily populated areas.

3. Pull at parts protruding from an ATM or gas pump.

Lightly tug at the slot where you’d insert your card. If anything falls off of the terminal or comes loose, immediately call your local police.

Pro tip: Card readers are usually built into and protected by the terminal. If the card slot is protruding out of the terminal, use extra caution and thoroughly examine it before inserting your card.

4. Use a virtual wallet to pay at the pump or access funds from the ATM.

Many credit unions and banks have upgraded to contactless ATMs, so you’ll never have to swipe your card. Additionally, skimmers are less frequently placed on ATMs that are owned by a financial institution, as opposed to a local venue or mall.

5. Install the Skimmer Scanner app on your mobile device.

This app could save you from future fraudulent charges by quickly scanning for Bluetooth skimmer devices installed inside the gas pump. Because this app isn’t 100% foolproof and can’t pick up on wireless skimmer just yet, there will always be risk associated with swiping your card. But this handy device living in your phone could be a great place to start.

What to do if your card has been skimmed

You may realize that your card has been skimmed while at the card reading terminal. If you suspect that your card has been compromised at a gas station or ATM, immediately call your local police for further investigation. If you spot a skimmer on an ATM, it is also a great idea to give a call to the financial institution operating the terminal.

If you spot fraudulent charges on your checking account transaction history, give your credit union or bank a call. Most financial institutions are able to refund the fraudulent charges within one business day thanks to federal regulations protecting consumers against such charges.

Staying alert is your first line of defense against skimming devices. Always be aware of your surroundings while making purchases, and know that your credit union or bank is here to help if you fall victim to these scams.


Claire Hegstrom is an advocate of the credit union movement through and through. Passionate about financial education, she approaches money conversations from a candid and inclusive space focused on growth and awareness. As our credit union founding father, Ed Filene, once said, “Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something still better.” Claire hopes reading Money Mentor will help transform your life from the best to even better.

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