If you plan on using an ATM during your stay in Mexico, you should be aware that skimming is a significant problem in tourist areas.
Just in case you are unfamiliar with the term, skimming is the theft of your card number and PIN through the use of electronic devices that record the information. The thief can then create a duplicate card and start withdrawing your hard-earned cash.
A few of my expat friends in Mexico have fallen victim to this one over the last year. In most cases, their bank detected the suspicious activity fairly quickly and deactivated the card.
That was the good news. The bad news was that they couldn’t access their money until they could get their hands on a replacement card. In every case, their banks refused to send a replacement card to Mexico for “security reasons”. This is why I recommend that people carry a backup credit card just for emergencies.
The purpose of today’s post is to educate you about some common ways that thieves steal your debit/credit card number and PIN. Once you know how they are doing it, you can follow the safety tips to reduce the odds of becoming a victim.
PIN numbers are often collected using small hidden cameras that are either attached directly to the ATM or close enough to view the keypad.
Thieves will often conceal them in a piece of plastic that appears to be part of the machine. A popular location for hidden cameras is just above the screen or on the side walls of the ATM (if there are any). In the case below, the thieves attached a security mirror to the machine that concealed the camera.
Skimmers and Keypad Overlays
Skimmers are often attached directly to the card port of the ATM and they are made to look like part of the ATM. You should always inspect the card entry port carefully for anything suspicious. If the entry port is protruding, don’t be afraid to test it by pulling on it or trying to twist it.
You should always inspect the keypad to see if it is loose or appears to sit up too high. Thieves often use fake keyboard overlays (shown below) to record your PIN.
This one is the hardest to detect because the skimming device has been installed inside the machine itself. The most common way that thieves accomplish this is by bribing a technician responsible for working on the machines.
Security journalist Brian Krebs found a large number of ATM’s with internal skimming devices when he came to the Yucatan Peninsula in 2015. He even found them in ATM’s located inside “secure” resorts. To read his articles, click HERE.
Although you will not be able to see the skimmer, you may be able to detect it with a special piece of equipment — your cell phone. Many of the skimming devices use Bluetooth technology that allow the thieves to retrieve the data periodically without even touching the machine.
To detect a Bluetooth network, go to connections on your cell phone (not Wi-Fi) and search for nearby Bluetooth devices. The default network name for one of the Bluetooth devices being used for skimming is “Free2Move”. If you see that network on your phone, it’s definitely a skimmer.
Most Bluetooth devices have a short range. If you are able to detect any suspicious Bluetooth devices in the vicinity of an ATM, I would skip that machine altogether.
Tips to Follow
- Try to use ATM’s at banks or in areas where it would be difficult for thieves to tamper with the machines unnoticed.
- Take a moment to look around the machine for hidden cameras.
- Look at the card port carefully for a skimming device. If it protruding at all, pull on it and try to twist it. If it is loose or comes off, don’t use the machine.
- Look at the keypad closely. If the keypad is loose, don’t use the machine.
- Use your free hand to conceal the numbers on the card when you insert it into the ATM and when you remove it.
- Use your free hand to conceal the keypad as you enter your PIN.
- Take a moment to look for a Bluetooth signal in the area of the ATM.
- Check your bank and/or credit card statements every day (never use a shared computer at the hotel for this).
- Never use your debit card to pay for items at businesses or restaurants.
Let’s Wrap This Up
By consistently following the tips in the preceding section, you can substantially reduce the probability that you will have your card number and PIN stolen at the ATM.