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Watch Out for ATM Fraud
-January, 2011

 

Back in your grandfather's day, withdrawing cash from a bank usually involved contact with a real person. Back then, criminals had to be very bold. They entered a financial institution — Bonnie and Clyde style — and demanded cash at the point of a gun. Or they tunneled into the bank after hours and blew a hole in the vault.

Of course, desperate crooks still rob banks. But nowadays, automated teller machines, or ATMs,
have provided new opportunities for criminals, often at less risk. Make no mistake: ATM theft is big business. In 2008, one survey found that financial institutions lost on average over $744,000 to ATM fraud, and some banks lost as much as $12 million.

 

Crooks employ various methods to commit ATM fraud. Of course, there's the brute-force scenario: The criminal attaches a chain to the machine, drags it down the street behind a truck, finds an out-of-the-way spot, and opens the safe with explosives. But this type of scheme carries significant risks. Police might be slightly suspicious of a truck pulling an ATM machine down Main Street! Also, banks are doing a better job of securing their machines these days and may even install ink dye systems to render stolen currency useless.

A more common scenario is the use of "skimmers." These are legitimate-looking devices that fit over existing ATM hardware. They're used to capture account numbers and verification codes from the magnetic strips on bank cards. Card "trapping" has also proved lucrative. In this scenario, a device is placed directly over the ATM's card reader slot. The device retains the card after a customer inserts it, then a "helpful" Samaritan shows up and suggests that the customer enter his or her personal identification number (PIN) to get the card back. The thief observes entry of the PIN number, and later retrieves the card and withdraws cash from the ATM machine.

How can you protect yourself from ATM fraud?

  • Use ATMs that are located in highly visible, well-traveled areas.
  • Scrutinize the ATM machine before using it. Note any visual clues of tampering.
  • Use your hand or body to shield entry of your PIN.
  • Regularly review your bank statements for unusual charges, and follow up immediately if something looks wrong.