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Watch Out for Skimming Scams

Follow these tips to prevent thieves from stealing data from your debit card's magnetic strip.

Identity thieves are always finding new and creative ways to steal your personal information. But one old scheme continues to snag unsuspecting victims: card skimming. In its simplest version, the bad guys grab card numbers by planting devices, known as skimmers, that read and copy the data on a debit or credit card’s magnetic strip. In other cases, the crooks pay employees to reswipe customers’ cards through a skimmer.

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More than 60% of card skimming occurred at ATMs in 2012, according to a recent FICO report. Thieves disguise the skimmer, often by placing it over the ATM’s actual card reader. Then, to record PINs as cardholders enter them, they install a tiny camera that has a view of the keypad or an overlay on top of the keys to log strokes. Before you swipe your card, check for signs of tampering by pulling on the card reader and its surrounding area to see if anything shifts or pops off. As you punch in your PIN with one hand, shield the keypad with the other to block the view of any camera.

Most important, review your credit card and bank statements to spot suspicious transactions. When possible, use a credit card rather than a debit card at potentially vulnerable payment terminals, such as gas pumps, or if the card will disappear from your sight -- say, when a restaurant server carries your plastic to the register. Credit card transactions have stronger federal protections against fraud; your liability is limited to $50 (American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa have zero-liability policies). Your bank will likely reimburse you for a fraudulent debit card transaction that you report promptly, but you’ll have to do without the money until the refund comes through.