Simple steps for safety in numbers

Your routine trip to the local ATM could have a shocking cost if you aren't careful. The reason: in a practice known as "skimming", thieves mount pirate card readers and pinhole cameras on automated teller machines to swipe credentials.

Your routine trip to the local ATM could have a shocking cost if you aren't careful. The reason: in a practice known as "skimming", thieves mount pirate card readers and pinhole cameras on automated teller machines to swipe credentials.

The mechanical modifications may be so sly, you fail to see that you're losing the keys to your account. Once your stripe data is captured and your PIN recorded, the thieves just cut counterfeit cards and bingo!

"You can literally lose everything in your account before you realise you've been victimised," security consultant Braden Perry says.

The demographic behind the dollar-draining crime is hard to define. "There is no norm for an ATM skimmer. It can be a lone criminal with rudimentary devices or it could be a very sophisticated organisation working on a number of ATMs across the world," Perry says.

According to anti-fraud consultant Ben Knieff, the skimming devices that scammers fit are typically handmade and available online for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on their complexity and quality. Expensive kits can be well camouflaged and hard to spot.

For your security, choose ATMs within bank branches or vestibules, which are safer than ATMs in bars or shops, Knieff says. Well-lit and supervised places are also usually much safer, he adds. Whatever ATM you use, be observant. If you're standing at a bank of ATMs, compare them with each other for any small differences. Watch out for anything that's loose or crooked in areas such as the keypad, the card slot and the panels around the machine.

"Criminals only have a minute or two to place their skimming devices without getting caught so the placement could be slapdash," he says.

The hands-on, high-tech crime, classed as part of Australia's $1 billion-plus personal fraud economy, is said to be increasing. Several reports of it have surfaced this year. In February, a $1 million card-skimming ring was busted when a man in sunglasses triggered attention by using several cards to withdraw large sums of cash. In May in Melbourne, British man Rami Zidan, 29, was arrested when police allegedly found high-tech skimming equipment, including magnetic stripe readers.

In June, police from the Western Adelaide Criminal Investigation Branch found a skimming device wrapped in electrical tape - the third such device exposed in six weeks. It represented a spike in skimming activity, SA Police News reported, spawning intense online debate.

Like South Australian police, Knieff recommends covering your PIN entry with your other hand to prevent observers or cameras from capturing your numbers.

He also recommends reviewing your bank statements regularly for unusual activity. That simple strategy will prevent what he terms "a long-term withdrawal trend" by those who have obtained your details.

If you see any dodgy transactions, immediately advise your bank to allay further loss.

With luck, you should also get your money back because in most markets, including Australia, financial institutions are required to reimburse customers in the event of unauthorised charges, Knieff says.

Still, never let your guard down because experts say ATM skimming can be part of a wider process of identity theft. In that case, reimbursements are not made for any loss. Worse, recovering your good name after it has been tarnished is arduous.

While you might be tempted to avoid ATMs altogether, that would be unnecessary, Knieff says.

"Their convenience and usefulness far outweigh the risks," he says.

For more information on skim scams, visit the government's SCAMwatch website: scamwatch.gov.au.

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