The recent spike in ATM compromises and fraud in the US reminds us that something we do all the time — getting cash from a cash machine — can be risky business. However, with so many different types of banks and ATMs, it can be challenging to decipher what is cause for concern and what is just a trustworthy ATM.
Here are four signs that an ATM has been tampered with:
1. It looks different — perhaps it has an unfamiliar layout or appears much newer or shinier than the same bank’s ATMs next to it. Criminals are adept at placing card or cash capture devices and PIN compromise devices in or around ATMs to get quick access to consumer funds. Some even install entire false fronts to ATMs to capture people’s PINs and money. These are often so well disguised that they can be extremely difficult to detect, so properly look at the ATM you are using to try and check it is legitimate.
2. An unusually bulky card insert slot might suggest a “skimmer’. A skimmer is a tool that is attached to the card slot on an ATM and secretly swipes your card details while you’re making a withdrawal – and it’s almost indistinguishable from the real card reader. Look out for anything that seems to cover the arrow heads that point toward the card slot – there should be a gap between the arrows and the card insert point. Also look for any misaligned or even misprinted stickers, as this is often an attempt to cover up where a compromise device has been installed. Try wiggling the card reader.
3. A loose or blocked card slot may suggest the presence of a so-called ‘lebanese loop’. Thieves can place a tiny plastic or metal sleeve or barb into the card reader so that, when you try to withdraw money, your card is caught in the machine. The ATM will continue to ask for a PIN as usual but won’t release the card, which means the funds are not dispensed. , If you are led to believe your card has been swallowed, you may walk away or even enter the bank branch and leave your card and cash to be retrieved by the fraudsters.
4. If the PIN pad feels loose, thick, or sponge-like, then it may be a fake. This longstanding way of capturing people’s PINs is known as a “PIN-pad overlay” - the true PIN pad is covered by a counterfeit keypad such that, although pressing the buttons correctly causes the ATM to register your PIN, it is simultaneously being captured by the criminal. Sometimes these digits are even instantaneously being transferred by WiFi to a waiting accomplice to record and use later.
Even if none of the above apply, be aware of your surrounding environment. Do not accept help from seemingly well-meaning strangers and don’t allow yourself to be distracted while at an ATM.
Typically fraudsters work best in teams, and distraction is a good way of scamming innocent victims to obtain a card or PIN. If an ATM is surrounded by individuals inexplicably loitering, try to use a different machine. Sometimes these will be confidence tricksters who, for example, have deployed a cash or card trap and will become “helpful” when you run into trouble. While you are distracted, an accomplice can quickly check your PIN or remove and conceal your card or cash.
When taking money out of an ATM, stand close to the machine and shield your PIN carefully. Do this even if there is no one nearby — in case criminals have installed a camera at the ATM. Once you have completed the transaction, put your money and card away before leaving the machine.
If you spot anything unusual about the machine, or there are signs of tampering, make sure you leave it well alone and report it to the police or your bank immediately so they can investigate.
Ultimately, always remember to be alert and put your personal safety first - if someone is crowding or watching you, then cancel the transaction and go to another machine.