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Card Skimming

It's called "skimming." At the gas pump, the supermarket, the ATM – criminals are finding new ways to take information from your credit cards and use it for themselves. Across the United States, organized rings of thieves can gather data from hundreds of ATM and credit cards within a matter of days, hours or even minutes.

It's called "skimming." At the gas pump, the supermarket, the ATM – criminals are finding new ways to take information from your credit cards and use it for themselves.

Across the United States, organized rings of thieves can gather data from hundreds of ATM and credit cards within a matter of days, hours or even minutes.

Joe Rideout of Consumer Action says it's often hard to tell if your card has been skimmed. “Skimming is usually going to happen at gas stations, point of sale terminals or sometimes in restaurants where a credit card thief could surreptitiously run it through a mobile skimmer and capture that information,” he says.

Once the information is captured from the magnetic stripe, it can be sent remotely from the reader and then stored on any device – computers, thumb drives, even phones – until the thieves are ready to use it.

“What we're seeing is that the crooks will go inside either the gas pump or the point of sale terminals and add circuitry or a skimmer on the circuit board, so that the machine works completely normally," says Tom Flattery, deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County in California. "There's nothing that you could tell from the outside, but the crook's gizmo inside is recording your information as you use it.”

Federal and local law enforcement have formed high-tech task forces to apprehend skimming suspects. Flattery leads one of these groups in Silicon Valley. He says thieves are targeted in their approach. “The crooks run this almost like a business, so they know that they want credit cards that have a high limit and available balance. So they will go to more affluent areas.”

That's exactly what police found when thieves rigged gas pumps in several cities in the San Franisco Bay Area. They installed undetectable skimmers and stole the information from thousands of credit cards with just six devices.

So how can you protect yourself from skimming? Since skimmers are often hard to detect, experts suggest making some changes to your routine. Pay inside at gas stations or use pumps that are clearly visible to an attendant. Also, look for tampering with pumps, ATM's or other card readers. But ultimately, your card statement could be your best weapon.

“The key is to be vigilant about what charges are coming into your credit card or debit card account and challenge anything that looks suspicious,” says Rideout. “As long as you report it and check your credit card statements every month or two at the very least, you should be fine and face no charges even if they are fraudulent.”

In particular, check your statements for things like gift cards, or other purchases that seem out of the ordinary. And alert your bank and law enforcement immediately so you won't be liable for the charges.

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