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The computerized and photographic skimming of bank customers’ account information as they use their cards at automated teller machines (ATM) and key in personal identification numbers has been around for years. It is an estimated $1 billion a year crime wave. And even law enforcement is not safe from victimization: the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington recently had her access data skimmed after she used her card at an ATM.

At a news conference, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan indicated she might have avoided the loss by exercising greater vigilance, and she urged other consumers to be careful out there. She was in a hurry, stopped at an ATM kiosk and noted that the card-activated door lock was broken. But she took out money anyway. When she next checked her account, $1,000 was missing.

Experts warn to always inspect ATM machines for skimmer evidence. Skimming devices are placed directly over the card interface on ATMs and a small camera is generally positioned above, looking down on the keypad where PIN numbers are entered. Inspect the card reader for anything suspicious – scuffs or glue for example – and feel free to yank on it. Skimmers are designed to mimic the look of the regular ATM interface, so take a close look. In addition, be sure to cover the keypad when you enter your pin, obscuring it with your off-hand, purse or wallet. The safest way to avoid getting skimmed is to never use ATMs.

Some other safety precautions ATM users can employ to protect themselves:

  • Card skimmers usually install their fake machinery at night or over the weekends and leave them there for only a few hours, so use extra diligence at those times.
  • Some banks have a card reader to gain access to the actual ATM enclosed in a booth. Those external card readers may be rigged with skimming devices, so use you a grocery card or other innocuous card to gain access – it only takes a magnetic strip, not your actual debit card, to get inside.
  • Don’t use an ATM if people insist upon standing around it. Politely ask them to move aside, and if they refuse, go somewhere else.
  • Don’t use any ATM that appears to be out of the ordinary. Do not use an ATM where signs affixed to the machines or instruction screens ask you to do things that are suspicious (such as entering your PIN multiple times). Report these discrepancies immediately to the bank in question or the police.
  • Get into the habit of using the same ATM for almost all of your transactions so as to better recognize when something is different with the machine. Be wary of any changes you see on its outside. If the ATM is affixed to a bank, walk in and ask why the changes were made.
  • Never take advice from "helpful" strangers about how to get your card back if an ATM keeps it. Report a machine-trapped card to your bank as soon as possible so that the card can be deactivated if it was not kept for legitimate reasons.

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