I watched as someone took an off-the-shelf USB magnetic-stripe reader and plugged it into a computer, which recognized it as a keyboard. They opened a word processor and swiped the card. A series of numbers dutifully appeared in the text file. That was it: The card’s information had been pilfered.
That same technology has matured and miniaturized. Tiny “skimmers” can be attached to ATMs and payment terminals to skim your data off the card’s magnetic strip (“magstripe”). Even smaller “shimmers” are shimmed into card readers to attack the chips on newer cards. Now there’s also a digital version called “e-skimming” that’s pilfering data from payment websites. Fortunately, you can protect yourself from these attacks.
WHAT ARE SKIMMERS?
Skimmers are tiny, malicious card readers hidden within legitimate card readers that harvest data from every swiped card. After letting the hardware sip data for a while, a thief will stop by the compromised machine to pick up the file containing all the stolen data. With that information, the thief can create cloned cards or just commit fraud. Perhaps the scariest part is that skimmers often don’t prevent ATMs or credit card readers from functioning properly, making them harder to detect.
Getting inside ATMs is difficult, so ATM skimmers sometimes fit over existing card readers. Most of the time, the attackers also place a hidden camera somewhere in the vicinity to record the PINs (personal identification numbers) we use to access our accounts. The camera may be in the card reader, mounted at the top of the ATM, or even in the ceiling. Some criminals even install fake PIN pads over the actual keyboards to capture the PIN directly, bypassing the need for a camera.
The picture above shows a real-life skimmer in use on an ATM. The weird, bulky yellow bit is the skimmer. This one is easy to spot, because it has a different color and material than the rest of the machine, but there are other telltale signs. Below the slot where you insert your card are raised arrows on the machine’s plastic housing. You can see how the gray arrows are very close to the yellow reader housing, almost overlapping. That is a sign a skimmer was installed over the existing reader, since the real card reader would have some space between the card slot and the arrows.
ATM manufacturers haven’t taken this kind of fraud lying down. Newer ATMs boast robust defenses against tampering, sometimes including radar systems intended to detect objects inserted or attached to the ATM. However, one researcher at the Black Hat security conference was able to use an ATM’s onboard radar device to capture PINs as part of an elaborate scam.
ARE SKIMMERS STILL A THREAT?
While researching an update to this article, we reached out to Kaspersky Labs, and company representatives told us something surprising: Skimming attacks were on the decline. “Skimming was and still is a rare thing,” said the Kaspersky spokesperson.
The Kaspersky representative cited EU statistics from the European Association for Secure Transactions (EAST) as indicative of a larger trend. The EAST reported a record low in skimmer attacks, dropping from 1,496 incidents in April 2020 to 321 incidents in October of the same year. The effects of COVID-19 might have something to do with that drop, but it’s nonetheless dramatic.
As recently as January 2021, a major skimming scam was unearthed in New Jersey. It involved attacks on over 1,000 bank customers, with criminals attempting to make off with over $1.5 million.
FROM SKIMMERS TO SHIMMERS
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