Elliott Greenblott

Elliott Greenblott

By Elliott Greenblott

With holidays around the corner, there is a renewed effort by scammers working hard to separate you from your money. This latest series of attacks surfaced in a few New England communities from Claremont, New Hampshire to Barrington, Massachusetts.

Criminals are returning to the use of “skimmers” as a way to steal money from ATM machines and gasoline pumps. Simply described, skimmers are devices that read the information found on the magnetic strip on an ATM, debit or credit card. A reader is installed with either a keypad overlay or miniature camera to capture the pin number for the card.

The skimmer either records or transmits the information to the criminal who is able to produce a new card and use the stolen pin to withdraw money directly from accounts. While usually well disguised, skimmers are often relatively easy to discover by pushing or attempting to move the ATM card entry device. If it moves or shakes, it may well be a skimmer.

A frequent clue may come from the fact that the card does not seem to fit properly in the card slot. If you encounter any of these issues, report the problem to the owner of the ATM and local law enforcement.

Try to avoid the use of ATM machines. But if you must use one, the safest are located at banks where surveillance cameras are present. Bank ATMs are not 100% safe but provide better security than stand-alone machines and those located in convenience, grocery, or big box stores.

A much safer way to obtain cash is through the use of Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay at a brick-and-mortar location. Officially named RFID technology and often called “tap and go” or “wave pay,” these are contactless transactions and cards are not inserted into slots.

Beyond the presence of skimmers, law enforcement is seeing a newer breed of devices designed to steal credit card information called “shimmers.” These are extremely small, thin devices that are inserted into ATM machines and POS (Point of Sales) slots at retailers.

With shimmers, a very thin battery powered chip card reads the chip present on the credit card and either transmits or saves the information until the card is retrieved. The criminal then uses the stored data to duplicate a chip card that can be used in transactions.

Shimmers are much more difficult to uncover. Installation in a POS or ATM takes less than 30 seconds and involves no external, visible parts. The best indication that a shimmer is present may be encountering difficulty while inserting a card. Once again, a good way to avoid losses to this technology is through the use of cards with RFID capability.

Regardless of how you choose to make cash withdrawals or purchases with cards, it is essential that you monitor all your accounts, bank and credit card, for signs of theft and fraud.

Online access to accounts is easy and carries no cost. Account owners can check the status of accounts frequently, allowing for timely reporting of irregularities.

What if you don’t use a computer? No problem. All banks and credit card companies allow for account access by telephone. It only takes a simple call to check on any withdrawals or purchases. Once again, a little caution and the application of basic protective steps can save you from major losses in this holiday season.

Special tips if you are buying a new cell phone: Many consumers are responding to the advertisements calling on them to upgrade their cellular phones. Between new models and competitive plans, prices appear to be dropping — or at least moderating — with new features being introduced.

Regardless of your reason for discarding an old cell phone, the Federal Trade Commission recommends some critical steps to protect yourself from having your personal data compromised: First, back-up the data on your phone; second, remove the SIM or SD card before disposal; third, erase personal information; and lastly, verify that your data was erased.

Questions, comments, concern? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. He produces a feature CATV program, Mr. Scammer, distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, VT.

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