Credit cards are convenient for making in-person purchases when you don't want to bring a purse or wallet full of cash. Unfortunately, using them in restaurants, stores and other retail locations makes you vulnerable to a crime called credit card skimming. Criminals can steal your account information without your knowledge, read it with a device called a skimmer and use it for fraudulent transactions.
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A skimmer is a device that can read encoded information surreptitiously on a credit or debit card's magnetic strip. According to Washington police detective Brandon Mengedoht, criminals use the harvested information to make a cloned card containing the stolen information on its strip. A thief can sign it and use it to make purchases, tapping into the victim's bank or credit card account. The Privacy Net privacy website warns that skimmers can be purchased cheaply online, and some criminals make their own.
Two main types of credit card skimmers exist, Privacy Net explains. One is a portable device carried by restaurant servers, clerks and other retail employees. The business runs your card through the skimmer handling it for a legitimate transaction. The other type of skimmer is a card scanner that looks like normal scanners on gas pumps and automatic teller machines (ATMs). Thieves install them in those locations to steal your information when you insert your credit card, thinking you're using a legitimate scanner.
Criminals who obtain your credit card account information with a skimmer will make as many purchases as possible right away. They want to spend the maximum amount before you notice the theft. You may try to use your card and have it rejected because the criminal has maxed out your credit line. Your bank might impose over-the-limit fees. Your statement will become riddled with fraudulent transactions that you have to sift through to identity the legitimate charges. Your bank will close your account and issue a new credit card, and you'll have to change any automatic monthly bill payments that you had set up under your old account number. According to the Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs, you may be liable for up to $50 in fraudulent charges, although many banks forgive this amount.
You won't know your credit card has been skimmed at a business, and you'll think the gas pump or ATM simply was not working if the skimming occurs at a gas station or bank. The criminal might be able to use your information for a month if you don't check your account activity between statements. You might even miss fraudulent purchases if you don't read your statement carefully, the Creditcards.com credit information site warns. However, you will probably realize your card has been skimmed when your statement arrives because the thief will have made numerous purchases that are nearly impossible to miss.
Do not let anyone in a store or restaurant take your credit card out of your sight, Creditcards.com recommends. Watch how clerks or servers handle the card. Some are very sneaky, pretending to drop it and running it through a skimmer affixed to their leg or stashed under a counter. Call your bank immediately at the 24-hour fraud line listed on the back of the card if you believe your account information might have become compromised.
Mengedoht advises checking for a skimmer before paying at a gas pump or using an ATM. He explains skimmers are often obvious if you pay attention because they stick out more than a regular card scanner and may be affixed with tape. Report a suspicious device to a gas station attendant or bank teller immediately.