How to spot and avoid credit card skimmers

If you’re protective of your credit and debit card information, you’ve got good reason. You may have heard about illegal credit card skimmers that are installed at gas pumps, ATMs and other locations. 

These devices can steal credit and debit card information, costing financial institutions and consumers more than $1 billion each year, according to the FBI. Read on to learn more about what credit card skimmers do and how to spot them.

Key takeaways

  • Credit card skimmers are one way for fraudsters to steal financial information.
  • Skimmers aren’t always easy to identify, but knowing what to look for can help.
  • Checking your card transactions regularly and setting up account alerts can help you spot suspicious activity. 
  • If you notice suspicious activity, call your card issuer immediately.

Protect your account online

Keep tabs on your account anytime, anywhere with the Capital One Mobile app.

Learn more

What is a credit card skimmer?

A credit card skimmer is a device that’s sometimes installed illegally on ATMs, fuel pumps or point of sale (POS) systems. When customers swipe their credit or debit cards using the card reader, the skimmer can scan or skim their card information. 

These skimmers exist in many places credit or debit cards might be swiped, including:

  • ATMs
  • Gas pumps
  • Grocery stores
  • Convenience stores
  • Department stores

Some skimmers use Bluetooth devices to steal credit or debit card information. That means the stolen credit or debit card information can then be sent to a thief’s computer or phone.

A person inserts a card into a card reader on an ATM while looking out for a credit card skimmer.

Before you insert your card into an ATM, it’s a good idea to check for any potential skimmers.

How do credit card skimmers work?

When a card is skimmed, its details can be stolen via the card’s magnetic strip. And then things like the cardholder name, card number and expiration date can be copied and used in fraudulent ways. Scammers could try to use the stolen data to: 

  • Make unauthorized purchases online or over the phone
  • Sell the data to other scammers for a profit
  • Use it for identity theft
  • Create counterfeit cards

Counterfeit cards will usually have all the same information as the stolen card. So any time the scammers use the replicated card, the original account may get charged. 

Do credit card skimmers work on chip cards?

While less common, there are thin devices called credit card shimmers that can be inserted inside chip-reading slots. Shimmers are generally invisible from the outside of a card-reading slot and can steal data from standard EMV chips—not just the card’s magnetic stripe.

What does a credit card skimmer look like?

Credit card skimmers are designed to look like they’re part of the POS system they’re attached to. Some skimmers fit over the original card reader in the machine but may appear more bulky. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Los Angeles County Consumer & Business Affairs websites have pages that show what skimmers might look like.

How to spot a credit card skimmer

Credit card skimmers aren’t meant to be seen, so you might not notice one at first glance. But there are some ways you can better spot one before you swipe your card.

Look at the card reader

First, check to see if the card reader looks intact. Is there any piece of the machine that’s bulging, raised or out of alignment? Does it look like part of the machine is covering another part where it shouldn’t be? If so, that could be a sign that a skimmer was installed.

Inspect the card reader

You can also try to feel around the card reader for a skimmer. If the machine feels like it’s coming apart in some places or like a piece of it isn’t sturdy or properly installed, that’s a sign that a skimmer could be in place. 

There’s also a chance something is loose or out of alignment when you put your card in the reader. But by that time it could be too late to stop the scam. So the FTC suggests trying to give the card reader a little wiggle before inserting your card. If it moves, you can report it to an employee and find a new option or place of business.

Check the security seal

At gas pumps, you can look for skimming devices by checking to see if there’s an intact security seal near the card reader. If the pump panel is open or it has a broken seal, the FTC says the label will read void. That’s a sign that there might be a skimmer installed. 

Compare with other gas pumps and machines

If you’re at a gas station, take a quick look at the other pumps around you to see if they look the same as yours. Do the card slot and keypad at your pump look about the same as the others? If not, or if anything looks like it’s bulging or out of place, that might be a sign of a skimmer.

And when it comes to choosing a pump, the FBI suggests picking a pump that’s closer to the store or in direct view of the attendant. Those pumps are less likely to be targeted by fraudsters.

Stay aware

Remember the bigger picture: If something feels off, it might be worth it to mention it to an employee, find another way to pay or go somewhere else.

How to prevent credit card skimming

There are also things you can do to help protect yourself from skimming, shimming and other frauds and scams:

Inspect the card reader and keypad

Follow the tips above to try to spot skimmers. Remember, if the card reader or keypad feels loose, out of alignment or out of place, there’s a chance it could have a skimmer attached. If that’s the case, avoid using it and alert the business.

Look for hidden cameras

Skimmers may also be paired with a hidden camera to record a personal identification number (PIN) or even a keypad overlay to record your keystrokes. Look closely above the card reader to see if there are any holes pointing down to where you would enter a PIN. 

Keep in mind that some machines, such as ATMs, have legitimate security cameras. But regardless of what kind of camera may be there, the FBI suggests covering the keypad when you enter your PIN to prevent any cameras from recording you.

A hand covers the other hand while entering a PIN at an ATM.

The FBI says it’s a good idea to cover the keypad when you enter your PIN to prevent any cameras from recording you.

Consider how you pay

Swiping and inserting aren’t the only ways to pay with a card. If you have a contactless credit or debit card, you can simply tap it to the machine instead of inserting it. If you’re at a gas station, paying through the app or inside with an attendant might offer more protection. And if you’re using an ATM, cardless machines or machines in high-traffic areas or inside bank branches may be more secure.

Use your credit card

While credit cards and debit cards are typically both safe options, credit cards may have slightly more protection than debit cards if fraud were to occur. For example, if your account number was used but your credit or debit card wasn’t stolen or lost, you shouldn’t be on the hook for the amount lost. But with debit cards, you must report fraudulent activity within 60 days of your statement date to avoid liability for your loss. 

What to do if your card is skimmed

Checking your bank and credit card accounts regularly might help you notice if there are suspicious or fraudulent charges. 

If your account has been compromised, report it to your card issuer immediately. You can do this by calling the number on the back of your card.

Credit card skimming in a nutshell

Overall, credit and debit cards are very safe to use. And many issuers, including Capital One, offer tools and features to help keep accounts secure. But safety features don’t guarantee protection, so it’s important to learn ways you can help protect yourself.

Watch out for potential warning signs, and contact your issuer if you suspect your account was compromised. You can also keep tabs on your credit card 24/7 with the Capital One Mobile app.

Related Content

Privacy & Security

What is identity theft?