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6 ways to reduce your risk of skimmer fraud

Dawn Papandrea

When you hit the road this summer, be on the lookout for card skimmers at gas pumps, ATMs and payment terminals that are poised to steal your credit and debit card information.

Skimmers are devices placed over a card payment terminal to steal your account details when you swipe your card’s magnetic stripe. The hard-to-spot devices are becoming ubiquitous – this week skimmers were found at fuel pumps in central Texas and Los Angeles authorities released a video of thieves installing a skimmer inside a gas station.

According to FICO research, the number of hacked card readers at U.S. ATMs, restaurants and merchants rose 30 percent in 2016. Now is the prime time to keep your guard up, too, as holiday weekends tend to show a spike in gas station skimming incidents.

Here’s how law enforcement and security experts say you can protect your financial information as you fuel up and get out of town:

1. Use the chip, not the strip.
If you have the option to use a chip card, doing so reduces the chances of your information being stolen. Most fuel pumps aren’t equipped to accept chip cards, since gas stations received a three-year extension to transition to EMV chip card readers, putting off the deadline to 2020. If you want to grab a slushy drink and pay inside the store, though, chances are you’ll be able to insert your card there.

2. Wiggle it, just a little bit.
Before swiping, check if the card reader is loose or looks crooked, which could indicate that there’s a skimmer attached. Unfortunately, because skimming devices are getting more sophisticated, such as a deep-insert type that can be placed into the card reader instead of on top of it, this strategy isn’t always fail-safe.

3. If something seems suspicious, walk away.
Sometimes you have to just trust your gut. If a card reader has an odd coloring, weird alignment with the rest of the machine, or material that doesn’t quite match other nearby machines, move on.

4. Cover the keypad.
You may feel funny doing it, but covering the PIN pad whenever you have to type in your code can save you a lot of headaches. That’s because along with the skimmer, a hidden camera is usually somewhere to record which numbers you key in. Even if a skimmer does pick up your information, if you protect your PIN, your account will probably stay safe.

5. Consider paying with your digital wallet.
If you have Apple Pay, Samsung Pay or Android Pay – or your card issuer or bank’s mobile wallet – paying by phone is an incognito way to make a payment. Essentially, your credit card company sends a randomly generated 16-number token or code to your smartphone as a stand-in credit card number. Some gas stations are even beginning to offer this option, such as if you pay through ExxonMobil‘s Speedpass+ app.

6. When in doubt, don’t use debit.
If your car is running on fumes, the next gas station isn’t for 30 miles, and you have no choice but to swipe a card at a terminal that seems shady, reach for your credit card. With debit cards, you could be on the hook for $50, $500, or more if someone makes unauthorized purchases or withdrawals using your stolen information, and you don’t report the fraud in a timely manner. Credit cards, on the other hand, often have zero liability.

Hopefully, by following these tips, your summer road trips will go off without a hitch. Still, it’s always a smart idea to review your bank and credit account activity online when you return home just in case. Better yet, before you go, set up notifications text alerts or email notifications so that you can monitor the activity on your frequently used accounts. That way, if something does go awry, you can contact the card issuer and flag your account ASAP.

Here’s to safe and skimmer-free travels!

See related: Skimmer 2.0: Beware the shimmerBluesnarfing is the newest card fraud at gas pumps and ATMs

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