ATM Skimmers Are Becoming Virtually Invisible

Peter Suciu for – Your Universe Online

The automated teller machine (ATM) is colloquially known as the “money machine” to many people – and for hackers this is increasingly true thanks to account-stealing bank machine skimmers, which security researchers warn are getting smaller and thinner. Krebs On Security reported on Monday that ATM skimmers are much like other electronic gadgets in the smaller/thinner department as well as having extended battery life.

The European ATM Security Team (EAST) issued a new report on these devices, and it warned that a new form of “mini-skimmer” has made its way to Europe. These are so small that it can be difficult to detect the skimmer, and these can even fit inside a card slot. Moreover, they can be used in conjunction with a tiny camera that can be used to gather a personal identification number (PIN). These cameras are increasingly disguised to resemble part of the ATM fascia or otherwise blend in and look like part of the machine.

This problem likely won’t go away – at least until there is a major upgrade to all ATMs.

“ATM skimmers are still a problem in Europe, even though virtually all cash machines there only accept cards that include so-called ‘chip & PIN’ technology,” Brian Krebs wrote on his Krebs on Security blog. “Chip & PIN, often called EMV (short for Eurocard, MasterCard and Visa), is designed to make cards far more expensive and complicated for thieves to duplicate.

“Unfortunately, the United States is the last of the G-20 nations that has yet to transition to chip & PIN, which means most ATM cards issued in Europe have a magnetic stripe on them for backwards compatibility when customers travel to this country,” Krebs added. “Naturally, ATM hackers in Europe will ship the stolen card data over to thieves here in the U.S., who then can encode the stolen card data onto fresh (chipless) cards and pull cash out of the machines here and in Latin America.”

“In countries where the ATM EMV rollout has been completed most losses have migrated away from Europe and are mainly seen in the USA, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America,” the EAST report noted. “From the perspective of European card issuers the Asia-Pacific region seems to be eclipsing Latin America for such losses.”

There is some good news in that some former ATM skimmer designers are now working to fight against the criminal technology. Last year a convicted Romanian hacker named Valentin Bonata, who is serving a five year sentence, developed a card reader that could prevent skimming. Bonata’s technology involves a rotating card reader that he claims would prevent skimmers from being able to lock on to the magnetic data strip.

However, EAST and Krebs noted there is also a simple and low tech method to protecting yourself from an ATM skimmer. That simply involves covering the PIN pad when entering the digits. Krebs has recommended this as a handy way to foil ATM skimmer scams but found that most users don’t take this precaution even when using a walk-up ATM. Beyond fears of skimmers Krebs added, “It’s a good idea to visit only ATMs that are in well-lit and public areas, and to be aware of your surroundings as you approach the cash machine. If you visit a cash machine that looks strange, tampered with, or out of place, then try to find another ATM.”