BY JOEY FERNANDEZ Contributing columnist
Editor's note: Action Line is a weekly column from the Better Business Bureau answering consumers' questions and concerns about money and business issues.
Dear Action Line:
I've recently heard about something called "skimming." I know it has something to do with my ATM card. I typically pull money out of a secure ATM once a week, especially now during the holidays. Now I'm worried that I shouldn't be doing that. Can you tell me, what exactly is "skimming," and how can I avoid becoming victim?
Skimming has become a huge problem. Even if you're choosy about which ATMs and gas stations you frequent, you can still become a victim of identity thieves who place seamless devices on machines to steal -- or "skim" -- sensitive financial information. Skimming is a growing problem and the Better Business Bureau serving Central California recommends that consumers take immediate steps to protect themselves from becoming the next victim.
Skimming devices are becoming increasingly harder to detect and often blend in seamlessly with credit card readers. If you're going to use an ATM or pay at the pump when filling up, you could easily become a victim. It's important to monitor your accounts closely so you can quickly detect any fraudulent activity on your card and act to minimize your losses.
Identity thieves tamper with ATMs and public credit card readers in any number of different ways to steal card numbers and PINs. It only takes a few seconds to install cameras over the keypad or a device over the card reader.
Here are some things you can do to avoid becoming a victim of credit card skimmers:
Protect your PIN . When entering your PIN, cover the keypad with your other hand to prevent any cameras from catching your digits. False keypads placed over the real keypad are also a way scammers get PIN numbers so if the keypad looks different, move on.
Give it a wiggle . Skimming devices are often false panels attached to the ATM, such as where you put your card into the machine. If parts of the ATM look damaged or different, give it a wiggle. Also look for new or suspiciously placed cameras and unusual signage. Don't hesitate to walk away and use another ATM if it doesn't feel right.
Be picky with your ATMS . Avoid using ATMs in poorly lighted or low trafficked areas. Experts often recommend choosing a bank ATM over standalone ATMs in public places. Not only do identity thieves attach devices to legitimate ATMs to steal numbers, they will also place their own phony ATMs in public places.
Don't pay at the pump . Go inside the store to pay for your gas. It's harder for a thief to mess with the ATM machine at the register as most employees do not leave the counter open and available for a thief to tamper with the machine.
Keep an eye on your statements . The most vigilant person can still fall victim to ATM skimmers and it's important to always keep a close eye on your accounts, particularly the itemized breakdown of charges and debits, so that you can quickly report any suspicious activity on your account.
Report fraud immediately. Report any fraudulent activity to your bank as soon as you discover it. Consumer protections for debit cards vary but depend largely on when you report the fraudulent activity. If you wait too long to report the fraud, your bank account could be cleaned out and your bank might not reimburse you.
-- Joey Fernandez is assistant director of business services for the Better Business Bureau serving Central California. Send your consumer concerns, questions and problems to Action Line at the Better Business Bureau, 1601 H St., Suite 101, Bakersfield, CA 93301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.