Thieves raise the bar on ATM theft


By Russ Van Arsdale, executive director
Northeast CONTACT
Posted June 05, 2011, at 6:18 p.m.

We read and hear so many stories these days about identity theft that the number of stories may actually be a kind of turn-off. “I’ve heard all that before,” is a likely response to warnings that crooks are working overtime to steal your good name, as well as your money.

The sad truth is they’re doing exactly that. And they’ve become very high tech in their thefts. Just ask the people who are charged with maintaining security for automated teller machines, or ATMs.

Thieves have come up with some novel ways to rip off ATM users. They sometimes install illicit devices, called card skimmers, in plastic sleeves in the slot where you swipe your card. This change can either transmit your information from the magnetic stripe on the rear of the card­ or gather and store your data for the thieves to pick up from the device later.

Some thieves are also hiding cameras nearby, and those cameras can record the action of your fingers as you type in your personal identification number. Cameras might be tucked away in a nearby corner, concealed in another electronic device or made to look harmless in some other way. They would likely be above eye level so they would generally go unnoticed.

Combine the electronic information from your card and your PIN, and the thieves have all they need to make unauthorized purchases. They can empty your account or sell the information to other unscrupulous users.

Thieves can sometimes steal your information when you make purchases online. Be sure you’re on a secure website, usually designated https in the url, before entering any personal or financial information. Legitimate online enterprises might also verify a personal item you listed when creating the business relationship.

The Comptroller of the Currency issued a news release last week, outlining some safe practices:

Walk away from an ATM if you notice someone watching you or if you sense something wrong with the machine; immediately report your suspicions to the company operating the machine or a nearby law enforcement officer.

Before using an ATM, examine nearby objects that might conceal a camera; check the card slot for a plastic sheath before inserting your card.

Never keep a written copy of your PIN in your wallet or purse as it could be stolen; instead memorize your PIN and keep a paper record hidden at home.

When entering your PIN, stand close to the machine and hold your hand over the keypad or screen to make it more difficult for a person or camera to watch you.

Beware of strangers offering to help you with an ATM that appears disabled and notify someone responsible for the security of the machine.

Regularly review your account statements, either online or on paper, and check for unauthorized withdrawals and purchases. If you find one, immediately contact your bank or credit card provider, as this will limit your financial liability for fraudulent charges.

For a fact sheet from the Federal Trade Commission on what to do if your credit card is lost or stolen, visit The Comptroller of the Currency has information on unauthorized charges and other issues at

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization.  For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to, or email


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