How to Prevent ATM Theft

Crooks may be emptying your bank account while your ATM card is in your wallet. Here’s how to prevent it.

(Getty Images)
Photo: Getty Images Street ATM machine bank account safety overseas travel

The airport ATM in Recife, Brazil, looked like any other, so I withdrew $400 and left for a remote island to dive with turtles. Two days later, my bank e-mailed me. Had I really just withdrawn $1,700 from two ATMs hundreds of miles away? No, I had not. I’d become the latest victim of skimming, a growing multimillion-dollar crime; one ring in New York City stole $1.5 million in 2012.

It works like this: Thieves install a duplicate reader in an ATM’s card slot that sucks the information off the card’s magnetic stripe. Then they get the pin from a hidden camera and program a new card. The practice is on the rise, and not just abroad: 3-D printing technology makes it easier to mount bogus faceplates on gas pumps and ATMs stateside, too.

There’s no foolproof way to safeguard your hard-earned dollars. The best approach, says special agent John Mazza of the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the country’s financial system as well as the president, is vigilance. His advice:

How to Safeguard Your Money

  1. Avoid ATMs in touristy areas.
  2. Cover the keypad with your hand in case there’s a camera.
  3. Give the card slot a good wiggle. Anything loose? Go somewhere else.
  4. If it looks like someone peeled a piece of tamperproof tape off the gas-station card reader, that could be a sign that a fake one was installed. Use a different pump.

In Brazil, I got lucky. The bank canceled my card and issued me a temporary credit within days to replace the stolen funds, though I had no way of accessing them from a remote South American island. Next time I travel, I’ll bring some cash.

More Travel