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Credit card miscellany, Protecting yourself

Would you trust your card at these sketchy ATMs?

Erica Sandberg

Pity the poor ATM that’s been defaced by vandals or tagged with graffiti. The card-carrying public should shun sketchy-looking ATMs, opting instead to seek out and use a cleaner and shinier machine.

Choices abound. There are about 420,000 ATMs in the United States, according to the National ATM Council. Fewer than half of U.S. ATMs are owned by banks and credit unions; the rest are owned by independent ATM operators.

Ownership aside, some machines are better maintained than others. But should people avoid ATMs that are not perfect 10s? Maybe. But looks can be deceiving.

An ATM in a high-crime area of San Francisco

Photos by Erica Sandberg
An ATM in a high-crime area of San Francisco.

Here’s what to look for in an ATM and when to, ahem, swipe right:

1. When you feel in real danger.
According to Brandon Hull, owner of Colorado ATM Expert, a company that services independent ATMs, the surface of the machine isn’t usually proof of internal problems.

“It’s what lives on the inside that matters,” says Hull. “The outside could be an indication of the neighborhood you’re in, not the safety of the ATM.”

So, consider a defaced machine as a sign to better examine your surroundings. Take, for example, this ATM located in a San Francisco neighborhood known for high crime.

Scan your environment. Are people lurking around the ATM? If you go to use the machine, does someone suddenly stand too close to you? Is there inadequate lighting around the machine?

In any of those cases, keep walking until you find a safer spot to conduct your banking business.

An ATM sitting just outside swanky San Francisco bars and restaurants

An ATM sitting just outside a few swanky San Francisco bars and restaurants.

2. When the machine is too trashed.
On the other hand, I snapped a photo of this ATM in an affluent San Francisco neighborhood. This ugly teller sits just outside a few swanky bars and restaurants.

While robbery may not be likely at this ATM, even non-germaphobes would hesitate to touch this money machine. Is that reason enough to avoid an ATM? Not necessarily.

What is troubling, however, is that the ATM is so adulterated that it would be almost impossible to use properly. You should be able to read the numbers on the screen. Your card shouldn’t get stuck because someone poured a beer in the card reader or on the keypad.

If you struggle to conduct a transaction, give up immediately and find another ATM.

3. When the ATM seems jimmied.
“Always check to see if the machine has been tampered with,” says Hull. “It’s pretty easy to tell because thieves have to install [skimmers] from the outside.”

Skimmers are devices that crooks attach to ATMs that collect data from customers’ debit or credit cards. With that data, crooks then produce cloned cards that can be used to make fraudulent purchases and to withdraw money from ATMs.

So instead of being put off by scratches and spray paint, check out any ATM for parts that don’t appear to fit seamlessly with the machine. A card reader that protrudes instead of being flush with the surface is a giveaway that something is amiss, experts say.

PC Magazine recently published some pics of ATMs that were fitted with skimmers. Often an ATM can look clean and well-maintained, yet a skimmer can be lurking atop the card reader.

“Jiggle the card reader portal to make sure there’s no skimming overlay,” says Bruce Wayne Renard, executive director of the National ATM Council.

Another safety tip: “Cover your hand or keypad with your other hand while entering your PIN,” Renard says. “These two simple steps are recognized by security experts in the industry as the most effective ways consumers can protect their card data at both ATM and point-of-sale terminals.”

Dean Sioukas, co-founder of Magilla Loans and a banking expert, adds, “Try to only use ATMs that you’re familiar with. And it’s got to be a bank’s ATM. I never use a standalone machine. It’s just not a good idea. Not even an unbranded one in a nice hotel.”

Where will you find the most secure ATMs? Either inside the financial institution itself, says Sioukas, or behind protective doors.

Renard agrees. “Most retail ATMs are indoors, which provides a safer environment from many perspectives as compared with the ATMs sitting unattended on the outside of bank premises.

“If there is an outdoor ATM that is in bad physical shape there are typically others available from which to choose,” Renard says.

Bottom line: If you have to swipe a card to enter and a guard is watching over the premises, you and the ATMs are likely to be safe – even if the machines have been “decorated” by saboteurs.

If you see a defaced ATM that can beat my photos, please share them in the comments section below.

See related: Cleanliness lesson from ATMs, toilets, germs and Charlie Sheen, Chip card delay at gas pumps extends skimming fraud, Card skimming 2.0: Beware the shimmer

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