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When 'Out of Service' Means 'Out of Luck'

Crooks steer you to ATMs rigged for ID theft

False out of order signs can influence customers to use ATM machines fitted with

Photo by C. Huber/Corbis

ATM machines rigged with a "skimmer" device steal data from cards.

It used to be that crooks put "out of service" signs on ATMs so they could avoid suspicion while they installed "skimming" devices — gizmos that steal PINs and account information.

Now, the signs are placed on ATMs that have not been rigged.

See also: How to safely use a debit card.

At least that was the case in Seattle recently, when a ring of thieves bilked nearly 600 ATM users out of at least $390,000, says the U.S. Secret Service.

Officials say that in bank vestibules that had several ATMs, the three-member gang would attach "out of service" signs to non-tampered ATMs in order to get customers to use a neighboring machine on which gang members had placed a skimmer.

These portable devices, which are available on the Internet, capture account information from the magnetic strip on the back of a bank card. The data may be immediately transmitted to a crook's computer or gleaned later when the device is retrieved.

Skimmers may also be installed on card readers at doors that provide access to locked areas housing ATMs.

The Seattle crooks did both and also installed tiny "pinhole" video cameras — usually just above the ATM — to record PIN numbers as customers typed them.

It you use an ATM that's got a skimmer, you do get your requested withdrawal. But crooks get the data, which they then can use to make duplicate copies of your debit card to drain your account.

In another variation of the con, a crook places an "out of service" sign on a bank's night-deposit slot and, dressed as a security guard, waits by it to collect after-hours deposits. (The sign may also say, "Make deposits with security officer.")

Former identity thief Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame claims he personally pulled off this ruse, without ever drawing more than a "good night" from unsuspecting depositors.

How to protect yourself

Still, the greater danger is at ATMs. Whether there's an "out of service" sign or not, here are some tips to protect yourself from skimmers:

  • Try to wiggle the machine's card slot. If there's movement, what you're touching is likely a skimmer placed over the real card slot.
  • Ensure that the slot's color is the same as the rest of the machine's. A skimmer will typically be of another hue.
  • Watch for light. Most ATMs emit a flashing or steady light from the card slot. If you see none, that could be a sign of tampering.
  • Always obscure the keypad as you enter your PIN. This blocks the view of hidden cameras or nearby people who may be skimming thieves.

Also of interest: Sticky ATM pad may mean trouble. >>

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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