GULF SHORES, Al.
This holiday season, credit-card and debit-card users might be buying gifts for more than just friends and family.
"I would hesitate to say it’s on the increase (in Alabama)," said Roy Sexton, Special Agent in Charge of the Secret Service’s Birmingham field office, "but we’ve definitely seen cases of it."
In addition to ATMs, skimming devices can be used at gas pumps, and unscrupulous employees can use handheld devices to skim information prior to handing a card back to a customer. The ATM and pump skimmers can be made to fit over legitimate card readers, mimicking the real thing, or be placed inside the machines. Some setups include keypad overlays that can access a user’s PIN by recording keystrokes.
Sexton said that banks are getting "very good" at preparing their ATMs to notice when there’s any modifications.
One of the biggest issues in catching suspects is that victims generally don’t notice missing funds until they check their bank or credit card statements. The devices are usually gone by that point, as they’re typically installed for just a few hours, according to the FBI.
Stolen account information is stored on a small laptop or cell phone, or sent wirelessly to criminals, according to the FBI, and then encoded onto blank cards.
"I don’t think we have any reports that we can say 110-percent, definitely is credit-card skimming," said Cpl. Christopher Levy, a Mobile police spokesman. "But how are we supposed to know? All we know is a guy goes and realizes that every dime he has in this world is out."
More than 3 million people have been victims of skimming at ATMs, losing an average of $1,000 per person, according to the ADT Security Services website, which also says a skimming device can store data for up to 2,000 cards. Due to fraud protection plans, financial institutions generally find themselves on the hook for lost funds.
"The bank would immediately repay the individual," Sexton said. "But it’s still obviously a huge aggravation for the individual; and for the businesses, there’s a loss."
Sexton said the Secret Service has dealt with a couple of foreign groups, in addition to individuals, in state skimming cases. ATM skimming is popular among Eurasian crime groups, according to the FBI.
Sexton said skimming isn’t more prevalent in one part of the state compared to another.
"It kind of cuts across all spans," he said. "It pops up, it comes and goes wherever."
The best option to avoid being a victim of skimming, Sexton said, is simple observation.
"When you approach an outdoor ATM, give it a quick inspection to make sure nothing looks out of place; that the faceplate looks as it’s supposed to look," he said. "It sounds kind of corny, but the other thing I always recommend is, when you’re working with an outdoor ATM, make it a two-hand operation. Slide your card in and when you go to punch in your PIN number, cover with your other hand; that way, it prevents the pin-hole camera from recording your PIN.
Sexton said cases of skimming don’t necessarily rise during the holiday season, despite the increase in shopping.
"It’s not necessarily something that’s required in a transaction," he said of skimming. "We see the increases in the counterfeiting because stores are busy and people don’t have as much time to take a good, close look at the money as it’s being passed. A skimming operation is more of an individual thing with a piece of equipment. It’s not really driven by the crowds or the holiday season."