ATMs, not always your friend

Jon Reid
Published on August 12, 2014

It was bound to happen eventually. I travel regularly for work and I need hard funds for the subway, taxis and of course, coffee. Outside of issues with connectivity or a worn out card, automated teller machines (ATMs) have been the model of convenience. Until my last business trip, when the cost of convenience jumped from a dollar or two all the way to hundreds.

My stop at the ATM was the same as usual. Arrive at the airport, withdraw enough cash for a few days of transportation and refreshment and move on. I even used the same ATM that I’ve used repeatedly over the past two years. I worked throughout the week without knowing that I had already been robbed. I didn’t find out about it until I dropped by another ATM to withdraw the funds for my trip back to the airport. Instead of cash, the ATM gave me a message saying to contact my bank. Not something you want to see when you need to board a flight in a few hours.

Calling my bank, they went through the standard procedure of verifying my identity and then informed me that my account was frozen due to unusual activity. My immediate thought was that I had forgotten to tell them I was traveling outside of Canada and they had noted international transactions. Appreciated but annoying at the moment. The bank started listing my recent transactions so I could tell them that everything was fine and they could reactivate my account.

Surprisingly, the first transaction they listed was not my withdrawal from the week before at the airport. Instead, they informed me of a series of charges totalling over $500 at various stores and online and another series of transactions that were attempted after they had frozen the account. At this point I was just in shock and genuinely thankful that they had frozen my account. Tracking back to my actual withdrawal, we earmarked all of the suspicious activity and the bank initiated a fraud investigation.

Funds returned

Fair enough, but there was still the immediate problem of getting to the airport. Fortunately, the kind folks on the phone had me go to an ATM and they activated the account just long enough for me to withdraw some funds. They monitored things on their end so they could pull the switch immediately. After I got home I got a new card from the bank and my account was reinstated. The fraud investigation did return all of my funds although it did take a couple of weeks.

The funny thing is, I typically withdraw cash for miscellaneous expenses to avoid fraud. I’ve had a number of colleagues that have had their cards cloned or double charged in taxis and such. To avoid issues like that, I’ve gone as far as to get a credit card with a small limit that I use only for travel. And I avoid using this card in taxis and restaurants where someone could easily clone the card by swiping it through a special device when it’s out of my sight.

So what happened? The bank told me that I was most likely the victim of a card skimmer. A card skimmer is a device that is physically attached to an ATM’s card slot and sometimes the keypad as well. The device captures your card information as it is inserted into the machine. Your PIN number is captured using a keypad overlay or a nearby hidden camera. Card skimming devices are designed to look like an integral part of the ATM.

I’m familiar with the idea of card skimmers, so I’m wary of ATMs in out of the way places where it would be easy to tamper with them. I thought I was savvy enough to notice a device that looked out of place. Obviously, I was wrong.

It’s unlikely that we can avoid the use of ATMs in our everyday life. Interac Inc. has issued a statement saying that the chip and pin systems on newer cards have helped to reduce debit card fraud, but not as much as you may think. My card has a chip.

The best we can do for now is to spend some time scrutinizing the ATM itself. Give the card reader a tug before inserting your card. Card skimmers are typically only secured with double-sided tape. Real ATM components will not come loose easily. If there are a series of ATMs, play a game of find the differences to see if any of them have strange components. Finally, cover the keypad with your hand when entering your PIN. That won’t help if a keypad overlay is in place, but it will stop pesky hidden cameras.

Jon Reid is an IT professional working in Corner Brook. His column appears every other Tuesday in The Western Star.