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Avoid debit-card-reader rip-off at bank ATM

May 16, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
If you think your money is protected because you don't carry cash, think again. Thieves steal millions of dollars every year by swiping information from bankcards. It's done with a device called a "skimmer." Here's how to protect yourself.

According to Consumer Reports more and more crooks are installing skimming devices on credit and debit-card readers to drain your bank account.

The key to your accounts -- namely, the information on the magnetic stripe -- can be copied when you use your bankcard at gas stations, stores, or increasingly even at your own bank's ATM.

New York City Deputy Police Inspector Gregory Antonsen says thieves do it by installing a skimmer right over the real card reader.

"When you pass your ATM card in and withdraw it, that little chip in there records the information off your magnetic stripe," said Antonsen.

To record your personal identification number, thieves often install a camera hidden in a panel above the keypad.

"The thieves can download your account information onto the magnetic stripe of a blank card, learn your PIN number from the camera recording, and start draining your account of cash," said Consumer Reports Editor-in-Chief Kim Kleman.

That's what happened to Rose Flores when she used the ATM at her bank last year before going on vacation. When she got back she discovered thieves were raiding her bank account.

"I felt very violated and very scared," said Flores. "They took out almost $6,000."

Flores discovered the theft by checking her statements online. Chase eventually reimbursed all the money she lost, but she's very careful using ATMs now.

It's an important precaution to check the ATM to see if anything looks loose or out of place.

"If anything looks suspicious, don't use the ATM, and contact the bank and the police right away," said Kleman.

And even if a card reader looks legitimate, shield the keypad with your hand so no one can record your PIN.

Consumer Reports says when it comes to gas stations, skimmers on the pumps are nearly impossible to detect, so it advises paying with credit cards versus debit cards. To avoid a skimming risk entirely, use cash.

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