What is an ATM skimmer? How to protect your bank account when withdrawing cash

3 min read

If you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to spot it. But if you don’t, you might wake up and find some strange transactions on your account from a country you’ve never visited. ATM skimming can happen anywhere, but knowing what to look for and best practices for avoiding it can help keep your account and money safe. Here’s how to protect yourself.

What is an ATM skimmer?

An ATM skimmer is a malicious device that thieves attach to ATMs in order to steal your card information. Usually it’s a magnetic stripe reader stuck on top of or inside the default card reader. It’s frequently paired with a device that retrieves your card’s PIN number like a tiny video camera hidden near the ATM or a fake PIN pad attached on top of the original.

Thieves build these gadgets themselves and then install them on ATMs. There are many different kinds—some looking obvious and can be easily removed, but some are more difficult to spot. Some skimmers save the data on the device itself, meaning the thief needs to retrieve the device to download the stolen data. Others contain a system that sends the data over a GSM network.

When withdrawing money, always pay close attention to any objects attached to the machine and its surroundings. A slight discoloration of a card reader could be a tip-off, as could a keypad that looks newer than the rest of the device.

There are two ways thieves can use your card information. Generally, they’ll transfer it onto a homemade credit card and use it with your PIN to make purchases. Alternatively, they might sell your data on the black market. That’s how suspicious transactions in far-flung countries occur.

ATM skimming can happen anywhere, from traveling in rural India to working in downtown Chicago. Skimming frequently happens in public areas or on ATMs outside banks (in convenience stores or malls for example). If you’re traveling, be extra watchful since you might need to make withdrawals at airports or train stations. ATMs in crowded spaces are insecure since no one regularly watches them. That makes tampering easier.

How to protect yourself from skimmers

When traveling, try to limit your number of withdrawals. It’s always harder to spot when something is amiss in a foreign environment.

Try your best to only withdraw from ATMs inside banks or in well-lit public areas. Again, it’s best to closely inspect the machine before inserting your card. Wiggle around on the card reader and give the PIN pad a quick once-over.

But most importantly, just trust your gut. If something seems strange—like if it’s difficult to insert your card—use another ATM.

Manage your account carefully—choose an account that lets you control your spending

The best way to limit any harm is by setting withdrawal and transaction limits when abroad. With N26, you can do this in real time with your card settings. Just open your Control Center and select My Cards. Simply toggle to turn them on and off.

Also, make sure you have push notifications enabled on your phone. The N26 app will automatically notify you of any transactions, so if something suspicious happens, you can immediately contact Customer Support.

Don’t feel self-conscious about covering your hand when entering your PIN. This helps protect your PIN from a hidden camera used to steal your details.

If these tips were helpful, comment below! And as usual, if you have any suggestions or ideas, just send us an email at ideas@n26.com. They make us happy.

By N26

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