How does card skimming work, and can you prevent it?

If you’ve never encountered a card skimmer, you should count yourself lucky. These small, illegal devices fit on top of card readers at ATM’s and other self-service sale terminals and can have a devastating impact on your personal finances, should they capture your card data.

Skimming fraud is part of a wider group of fraud named ‘card not present’ fraud, which means the scammer doesn’t have to have your physical card to hard in order to make transactions on your behalf – read on to find out how this works.

How does card skimming work?

Unfortunately, as these skimmers are designed to blend in with the rest of the machine, they can be notoriously tough to spot. For thieves to successfully carry out skimming attacks, a card reader is placed over the ATM’s real card slot, so, when you slide your card into the ATM, you’re unwittingly sliding it through the counterfeit reader, which scans and stores all the information on the magnetic strip.

However, to gain full access to your bank account on an ATM, the thieves still need your PIN number. That’s where cameras come in – hidden on or near the ATMs, tiny spy cameras are positioned to get a clear view of the keypad and record all the ATM’s PIN action.

Alternatively, some ATM skimming schemes employ fake keypads in lieu of cameras to capture PIN numbers. Just like the card skimmers fit over the ATM’s true card slot, skimming keypads are designed to mimic the keypad’s design and fit over it. If you notice that the keypad on your ATM seems to protrude oddly from the surface around it, or if you spy an odd colour change between the pad and the rest of the ATM, it could be a fake.

A thief can then either use this information or sell it to someone else to make purchases from your card and access all the hard-earned cash in your account.

How to prevent it

It is important to remember that withdrawing cash at an ATM is generally safe and the vast majority of ATM transactions happen without any problem. Card payments are one of the safest and most convenient ways to pay for goods and services, especially since the introduction of Chip and PIN.

However, as ATMs are in public areas, they sometimes attract criminals who see the ATM as an opportunity for theft. It is therefore vital to take some commonsense precautions when withdrawing cash or checking your balance.


  1. Scan the area for hidden cameras that record you typing your PIN. These may be mounted near the keypad, so always make sure you cover the hand typing your PIN.


  1. Compare the card reader and keypad to the rest of the machine. The colours and styles should all match.


  1. Assess the area for any obvious signs of tampering. Damage to the panels should be a warning sign.


  1. Be alert at the ATM. Be aware of the people around you, especially those standing close by. If someone is crowding you or trying to distract you, cancel the transaction and go to another ATM.


  1. Nudge the card reader and keypad. Card skimmers and fake keypads are designed for the thief to remove easily, so if they feel loose, you may have spotted a skimmer.


If the machine doesn’t seem right, then report it to the bank branch and go to another location. What’s more, if you believe your card has been compromised, go to another ATM, change your PIN as soon as possible and report it to your bank or card issuer.

It is a good practice to get into a regular habit of checking your bank statements and monitoring your accounts, to catch any unusual charges. Should you notice any fraudulent charges on your statement, report it to the card company immediately and shut down the account.

With many banks today you can also set up mobile notifications on your account and credit cards, which will give you an alert every time a charge is more than, say, £100 or every time there’s a “card not present” transaction. This is a great way to keep on top of your transactions and it’ll only take seconds to remember whether you made the charge. If you do receive a notification for a transaction you definitely didn’t make, immediately freeze the card using your online banking mobile app. This will prevent any more money leaving the account by the time you ring your bank issuer to cancel the card.

We hope this post was helpful in understanding what skimming fraud is and how you can best protect yourself from it. If you have any other questions, please leave a comment in the section below. You may also enjoy these other posts around the topic: