Credit card skimmers are illegal devices that criminals use at payment points of service, including ATMs, gas stations, and merchant credit card terminals, to steal consumer card information. While credit card skimming can happen anywhere, there are some ways to help protect yourself. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Credit Card Skimming?

Credit card skimming is a form of identity theft that involves copying a credit card or debit card’s information to use for fraud. An illegal device called a skimmer is installed at a gas pump, ATM, or other payment terminal to copy card information from the magnetic strip to a storage device. Criminals can then retrieve the stolen information and use it to make fraudulent purchases.

How Common Is Credit Card Skimming?

Credit card skimming is one of the most common types of fraud and costs consumers and financial institutions more than $1 billion a year, according to the FBI.

Where Are Credit Card Skimmers Most Often Used?

Credit card skimmers are often placed on ATMs and gas pumps, but they can be placed on most types of electronic points of sale. Tourist areas are popular targets for credit card skimming devices, but they can appear at merchants in any region.

Who Are the Most Common Victims of Credit Card Skimming?

Anyone who uses a credit card or debit card to make purchases can become a victim of credit card skimming. But your risk of prolonged fraud and losses increases if you don’t regularly monitor your accounts.

What Does a Credit Card Skimmer Look Like?

It can be challenging to spot skimming devices because they come in various forms and are designed to blend in seamlessly with card scanners.

There are three main kinds of card skimmers: overlays, shims, and built-in skimmers. Overlays are fake card readers that are placed over the real card reader. When you swipe your card, an overlay can collect your payment information. They might look slightly bulkier or have a different texture than the original reader; be wary of any card reader that feels loose or appears tampered with.

Instead of covering the outside of card readers, shims are thin inserts placed inside the legitimate card reader slot, making them very difficult to notice. Shims capture your card data as you insert it. Look for gaps or unevenness around the card reader slot, and never force your card in if the slot feels tight.

Built-in skimmers are more sophisticated and permanently installed within a card reader. They’re virtually undetectable by casual observation. To avoid these, opt for card readers that are within view of a security camera or cashier.

How to Help Avoid Credit Card Skimmers

Here are some tips to help avoid credit card skimmers.

Learn How to Spot a Credit Card Skimmer

Checking for a skimmer usually only takes a few seconds:

  • Look for damage to the card slot or PIN pad, which could be a sign that the machine has been tampered with.
  • Wiggle the card reader or keypad with your hand. If it feels loose or moves easily, it could be a skimmer.
  • Compare the card slot to other nearby machines, such as the neighboring gas pump.
  • Some gas station pumps have security stickers installed on the card readers. If the sticker looks tampered with, don’t use the card reader.

Use Contactless Payments

Embracing contactless payments is one of the most effective ways to avoid credit card skimmers. Many cards now come equipped with contactless payment technology, allowing you to simply tap your card against a reader to complete a transaction. This eliminates the need for your card to physically enter a reader, protecting it from skimmers that read that magnetic strip or chip on your card.

Choose a Machine in View of Security

Use an ATM, gas pump, or point-of-sale terminal that is within view of security, a cashier, or a bank teller. Criminals are less likely to target machines where they can be caught installing skimmers.

Look out for Hidden Cameras

There may be hidden cameras installed on gas pumps or ATMs to spy on your keystrokes and capture your personal identification number (PIN). If you see a camera, report it to the merchant. It’s also a good idea to cover your hands when inputting your PIN number to avoid shoulder surfing.

Monitor Your Accounts

Someone who gains access to your credit card or debit card information can use it to make purchases. Monitor your accounts and read your monthly statements to look for unauthorized transactions. Immediately report any suspicious activity to the financial institution.

Use a Credit Card for Purchases

Using a credit card for your purchases offers greater consumer protection, as your liability for fraudulent charges can never exceed $50. Most credit card providers extend $0 liability to their cardholders as an added protection.

Debit cards, on the other hand, can only limited to $50 liability if the debit card holder notifies the bank within two days of discovering fraud. That liability increases to $500 if the cardholder waits longer than two days. And, if fraud isn’t reported within 60 days, the cardholder may be liable for all losses.

You should check your credit and debit card terms and conditions for your specific requirements.

Sign Up for Identity Theft Protection

Even if you are attentive to all the warning signs of card skimmers, all it takes is one slip-up for your payment info to fall into the wrong hands. The best course of action is to use a robust identity theft protection platform with tools and services that not only help you prevent identity theft but also recover from it while mitigating damages. This can help you safeguard your finances while also giving you an extra safety net.

Credit monitoring can help protect you from identity theft by watching your credit report, Social Security number, and other crucial aspects of your identity for signs of fraud. You receive alerts when possibly suspicious activity is detected to help you quickly respond when fraud occurs.

IdentityIQ provides 24/7 credit monitoring with real-time alerts, along with many other features for prevention and recovery, such as internet and dark web monitoring and identity theft insurance of up to $1 million, underwritten by AIG


How can you tell if your card has been skimmed?

If you find unauthorized charges on your credit card or bank account, your card information may have been stolen. Regularly review your credit card statements for any charges you don’t recognize. Even small, out-of-pattern charges could be a sign of skimming. If you see several charges from the same place you haven’t been to, especially if they’re close together in time, this could be a sign your card information was used through a skimmer.

Can you get your money back from a skimmed card?

If you report fraudulent charges to your credit card provider or bank immediately, you may be able to recover most, if not all, of your losses. It’s important to remember that credit cards usually offer greater liability protections against fraud, while debit cards are less likely to offer strong protection.

Do credit card skimmers work on chip cards?

Most skimmers copy the data from the magnetic strip on your credit card, so it is usually safer to use the chip on your card as they are more heavily encrypted. However, it is possible for chip cards to be skimmed with more sophisticated devices, such as shimming devices that are installed directly into the card reader.

Can a credit card be skimmed by tapping?

Payment terminals with contactless technology that let you tap to pay may help prevent your card from being skimmed. This is because most card skimmers rely on a physical connection between the skimmer and the card in order to steal payment information. But it is possible to skim a wireless payment by using an RFID skimmer. These devices use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to capture the radio waves emitted by contactless cards. The skimmer then decodes these waves to extract your card information, such as your card number and expiration date. However, RFID skimmers are fairly uncommon. They also have a limited range of only a few centimeters and require the skimmer to be very close to your card, making them less effective in crowded environments or when you’re holding your card close to your body.

Do credit card skimmers work on mobile wallets?

Credit card skimmers should not work on mobile wallets on your phone. This is partly because mobile wallets use encrypted tokens instead of transmitting your actual card number, making it much harder for skimmers to capture usable data. Mobile wallets are also updated regularly to maintain their digital security.