How to Identify a Credit Card Skimmer and Protect Yourself

By Jacqueline DeMarco · May 20, 2024 · 7 minute read

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How to Identify a Credit Card Skimmer and Protect Yourself

Card skimmers are small devices that fit into credit card readers (say, at a gas station or outside ATM) and snag your card information. This can then be used to steal your credentials and commit identity theft.

Unfortunately, credit card fraud is all too common, totaling more than 426,000 instances in the most recent year studied. These skimmers, installed by would-be criminals, contribute to this figure. Here’s another indicator of how pervasive skimmers are: The FBI reports that financial institutions and consumers lose more than $1 billion per year to this practice.

To help protect yourself against theft, keep reading to learn what credit card skimmers are, how to spot a credit card skimmer, and what to do if your credit card is skimmed.

What Is a Credit Card Skimmer?

Credit card skimming is a form of theft that occurs when someone installs a small electronic device, known as a credit card skimmer, into a card reader. This device can read and collect information from a credit card when someone makes a purchase. The skimmer does this by reading the magnetic strip on a debit or credit card, which provides the full name on the credit card as well as the credit card number and credit card expiration date.

Credit card skimmers have been around for almost a decade. They are most commonly attached to gas station pumps, ATMs, and other types of machines that accept payments from both secured and unsecured credit cards as well as debit cards.

Identifying Credit Card Skimmers

Knowing how to check for credit card skimmers is a great way to protect against potential theft. Especially when using an outdoor payment machine like a gas pump or ATM, take a look at the card reader for signs of a credit card skimmer. See if the card reader is sticking out at an angle or looks any different from other nearby card readers. Also check if the card reader is loose or the keypad is unusually bulky.

When skimmers first came into play, it was easier to spot a credit card skimmer as the card reader often appeared to be tampered with or wiggled when used. Today, skimmers can fit snugly over the scanner, which makes it much harder to tell if something is amiss.

In the instance that all seems well with the card scanner at a gas station, double check the pump. If a gas pump is open, unlocked, has had the tamper-evident security tape altered or removed, or anything else seems amiss, it’s a good idea to use a different pump.

If possible, it’s best to use a credit card pump that has an encrypted credit card reader. Ideally, use one that has the illuminated green lock symbol near the credit card reader — this symbolizes that it’s been encrypted.

What Happens When a Credit Card Is Skimmed

When a credit card skimmer reads a magnetic strip on the back of a credit or debit card, it can obtain the cardholder’s full name, credit card number, and the credit card expiration date. Sometimes, scammers add a small camera into the equation in order to watch someone enter their PIN number when using a debit card. Really, one of the few things that’s safe is the CVV number on a credit card, which is why it’s so important to keep this secure.

Once the thief has this information in hand, they can use the card anywhere that accepts credit card payments. They may have access to the cardholder’s bank account and could steal their identity. Or the thief can sell the information on the dark web.

Recommended: 10 Common Credit Card Scams and How to Avoid Them

Protecting Yourself From Credit Card Skimmers

If you’re old enough to get a credit card, it’s critical to know how to use it responsibly and safely. Here’s a few tips to keep in mind to avoid falling prey to credit card skimmers.

Use NFC or Supervised ATMs

To help avoid coming into contact with a card skimmer, try to use payment terminals that are supervised by security cameras or skip using the card reader altogether and make a Near Field Communication(NFC) payment. NFC payments are secure transactions made with a smartphone, allowing you to avoid swiping your card at all.

Check and Recheck the Keypad

When it comes to how to spot a credit card skimmer, remember to check the keypad for any signs of tampering. These days, it’s a bit harder to identify when a keypad has a skimmer on it, but if anything seems amiss, use another payment machine or go inside the gas station or bank to make a transaction or withdrawal.

Don’t Leave Your Card Unattended

Whenever possible, make a transaction or withdrawal inside of a gas station or bank. The odds of a criminal accessing inside payment terminals with a clerk watching are much lower compared to outside payment terminals. It only takes criminals a few seconds to add a skimmer to an outside payment terminal where no one is watching.

Just like taking the time to compare the APRs on credit cards, spending a few extra minutes going inside to buy gas or take out cash can pay off. It could help you avoid countless hours of dealing with identity theft as a result of credit card skimming.

Use Credit Cards With a Chip

If you’re familiar with what a credit card is, you’ll know that most credit cards today come with a “chip” that allows consumers to make payments without actually swiping their credit card. With an EMV chip, it’s possible to simply tap a credit card instead of swiping it to make a payment, which helps avoid credit card skimming. If you have a card that is old-school and lacks a chip, you might ask the issuer if an updated version is available.

Be Vigilant

If someone does need to use an outdoor ATM or gas pump, use one that is close to the building and preferably in the line of sight of an attendant, security guard, or security cameras. The more hidden a payment terminal is, the more likely it is that there is a credit skimmer placed on it. Also make sure to be aware of your surroundings when using any exterior payment terminals.

Sign Up for Credit and Debt Alerts

One way to catch fraud is to sign up for alerts that send a notification any time a purchase is made with the card. After all, it’s unlikely a fraudster’s activity will result in a negative balance on a credit card.

By receiving an alert right when a purchase is made, you can confirm whether or not you made it. If you believe an unauthorized purchase was made, contact your bank or credit card issuer immediately.

Check Your Account Regularly

To be extra vigilant, double-check debit and credit card statements frequently to make sure that no unauthorized charges slipped through the cracks. It can be easier to stay on top of charges if you check in throughout the month rather than waiting until you receive your credit card statement and being shocked that you’re almost at your credit card limit due to unauthorized spending.

Can You Get a Refund if Your Card Gets Skimmed?

If you realize your credit card or debit card has been skimmed, check in with your bank or credit card issuer about next steps. You should also put a freeze on your credit report to ensure that the fraudsters aren’t applying for new credit cards in your name. In some cases, you may need to file a police report.

The credit card issuer or bank will have fraud protections in place and should refund you for any money lost. These protections are an important part of how credit cards work. Still, the sooner you cancel the cards and stop the fraud, the better. Most top credit cards have zero-liability policies that will refund the full amount of the fraudulent charges. If they don’t, the maximum liability anyone has as a consumer is $50.

The Takeaway

Skimmers, small devices that fit over credit card readers, are unfortunately a common way that financial credentials can be stolen and unauthorized charges or identity theft enacted. These are especially common at gas station pumps and outside ATMs. With a debit card, consumers aren’t entitled to as much protection regarding theft, so it’s helpful to use a credit card whenever making purchases at an outdoor payment terminal that’s vulnerable to skimmers. Still, it’s important to know how to spot credit card skimmers so you can hopefully avoid them.

Whether you're looking to build credit, apply for a new credit card, or save money with the cards you have, it's important to understand the options that are best for you. Learn more about credit cards by exploring this credit card guide.


What does a credit card skimmer do?

Credit card skimmers illegally collect information from credit and debit cards. Skimmers are typically attached to outside payment terminals like ATMs or gas stations.

Are card skimmers illegal?

Yes, credit card skimmers are illegal. This is why credit card issuers are creating new technology like chips to help make purchases more secure.

How common is credit card skimming?

Credit card skimming is all too common. The FBI reports that it costs financial institutions and consumers more than $1 billion per year.

Photo credit: iStock/greyj

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.


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