Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Skimmers


We’re not talking about water bugs, tools to clean your pool, or skipping rocks. These skimmers steal your financial identity. The news had reported that skimmers were discovered on a local gas station’s pumps. This particular station consistently has problems with pump maintenance and just the overall condition of the pumps seems to be “beat up”.  It was not a surprise that skimmers had been installed. Not that the owners had any involvement, but meaning that the owners/operators are not paying attention to the condition of the pumps. Or what is going on at the pumps. This station is also known to allow third party vendors to sell their goods on the lot and accost customers at the pumps. Big personal security peeve-Do not approach me while I’m using a gas pump or ATM. These little things add up and go back to not being surprised. The condition and environment of a business can be both a determent and invitation to criminals.

Not everyone may know exactly what a skimmer is or the extent of the problem. I thought some background might help us from becoming victims. A little education goes a long way.

Skimmers

So what are skimmers?  Credit card skimmers or skimmers are electronic devices that are attached to machines with credit card slots. Mostly ATM’s or gas pumps. The parasite device usually fits over top of the original slot so that the customer believes they are inserting their card into the machine’s card slot. When in reality the card is swiping through the criminal’s device. The device retrieves the credit card data from the magnetic strip and stores it until the criminal retrieves the device. Newer, more sophisticated devices attach internally to the machine’s card slot or transmit the data via Bluetooth.

Although criminals can make use of debit card information, it is much easier with the associated PIN. To gather this information there will also be a camera attached somewhere to video the customer entering the PIN on the keypad. Or a fake keypad accompanies the slot reader and records the keystrokes. Most times the operation of the machine is not affected. If the machine fails to work, you may have already become a victim.

History of skimmers

The idea of the use of credit card skimmers was mostly urban myth. In the late 1990’s, we were just getting use to personal computers, let alone tiny devices that could steal data from a magnetic strip. Nobody believed that such things existed or could work.

The skimmer myth also gained notoriety in restaurants. Wait staff would be issued a small skimming device to carry with them. They covertly slide the card through the device to collect the data from the magnetic strip on the way to cash register. The device holds all of the data until the end of the shift when they pass off device and are paid for their efforts. The victims then start seeing charges on their cards.

If you think about it, a restaurant is the only place you hand a stranger your credit card and let them walk out of sight.

Gizmodo.com featured a good 2014 article on skimming history, The Evolution of ATM Skimmers 

Here is a synopsis:
2002- A CBS report confirmed the existence of skimmers when they reported devices that could record the names, account numbers and other identifying information from credit card magnetic stripes.
2008-Naples Police Department investigated a rudimentary device jammed over an ATM's actual reader. The thief inserted a "micro camera" under a plastic sheet to capture the victims' keypad strokes. This was one of the first times a device had been recovered.
2009-Skimming really takes off as the devices, in different shapes and sizes began being discovered on ATM’s.
Over the next few years the technology progressed. The Internet allowed for distribution networks to manufacture devices and kits that were identical to the machine the criminal hoped to crack. 
            2011-ATM manufacturers began cracking down on skimming by installing anti-skimming devices on their machines. These consisted of translucent, circular casings over the card reader, which the criminals quickly learned to replicate.
2012-Skimmers become too small to be detected. Some being paper thin and inserted into the card slot.
2013-Gas pumps became targets.  A series of scams in Oklahoma saw thieves take home $400,000 from a chain of Murphy's gas stations before they were eventually caught. The thieves used a card skimmer and fake PIN pad overlay to obtain the necessary information. Even more eye opening, these skimmers used Bluetooth enabled devices that sucked power from the pumps themselves allowing them to run indefinitely, and allow remote access to the data. ; once it was installed, the thieves would never need touch the skimmer again.

How it works

The devices used come in all shapes and sizes. Most fit over the card slot. Some actually are big enough to replace the machine face. The closer to resembling the original card slot the less chance of being detected. Home 3D printers are making these deceptions a lot easier. As with everything else electronic, these devices are getting smaller everyday. Some skimming devices are so small and thin, they slide inside of the card slot itself. Newer devices attach to the internal wiring of the card slot. These are mostly used on gas pumps. How do criminals get inside the pumps you ask? Universal keys are available that open the pump faces exposing the card readers. The criminal will have one or more accomplices to block camera/attendant views while they install the device. Victims never know what hit them.

Once collected, the numbers are used in different ways depending on the criminal. Some are sold on the Internet for around $50 a piece (+/-).  Some criminals use the collected numbers to make counterfeit cards, which they use to purchase items, usually electronics, for resell. (Similar to Melissa McCarthy in the movie Identity Thief) The more advanced organizations use the cards to purchase gas. They drive around in specially outfitted passenger vehicles filling up covert gas tanks. This gas is then off loaded into tanker trucks and sold to less than scrupulous gas stations. 

There are thousands of iterations of card skimmers. If you’d like to see what they look like just search “credit card skimmers” in Google images.

Protection

Criminals and the technology they use are getting more sophisticated. The Internet provides enough intelligence that consumers can protect themselves. But criminals are sharing information as well. Once law enforcement or consumers defeat one strategy, criminals learn and improve their methods. So what can you can do.

Some gas stations are installing seals to cover the seams that hold the payment box. A broken seal is obvious, but multiple seals overlaid is a clue and, of course, enterprising thieves can replicate seals. Another clue can be the condition of the machine in which you are about to slide your card. If the payment box area is not maintained or appears to have been forced open, be wary. Inspect the card slot. Give it a tug. If anything is out of sorts or the slot comes off in your hand report it to the station and the police.

If your transaction attempt doesn’t work, don’t keep trying. Stop and perform an inspection. The skimmer may be causing a malfunction.

Some habits to get in to help protect your card security:
  • Use Pumps/ATMs near attendants. Less chance they were compromised.
  • Pay inside
  • Pause before you swipe, inspect car slot, look for security seal
  • Feel for difficulty inserting or sliding card
  • Wiggle slot housing. Don’t have to break it. Criminals aren’t going to install anything that takes time or is permanent
  • Check nearby pumps, compare slots for differences
  • Guard the card number
  • Use Apple/Samsung/Android pay whenever possible
  • Check accounts regularly

Any suspicions report to the business owner, the police, and the issuing bank.

This post focused mainly on gas pumps. Another area of concern is the new style parking meters that allow you to swipe at the meter. Seems like easy targets. Get back to you on those.

Please feel free to share. See the blog archive for more articles on personal security


1 comment:

  1. Dozens of skimming devices found at gas stations; 2 men charged
    http://www.wbaltv.com/article/two-men-charged-for-installing-skimming-devices-at-a-gas-station-in-howard-county/12035308

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