KNOXVILLE (WATE) – It’s a sign of the times. Criminals can easily capture your credit and debit card information without even being present using a small device called a skimmer. If you know what to look for, they’re not difficult to spot.

Not too many years ago, police defined ATM crime as someone getting hit over the head and having their money stolen. Then it was watching someone punch in their PIN and leaving their receipt behind. Now, with a little illicit technology, skimming is a more sophisticated crime.

To the unsophisticated eye, it’s hard to tell the difference between a skimmer and a real card slot. Credit card slots at gas pumps are particularly vulnerable because some of the devices are difficult to detect for most people.

Annie Culver was caught by surprise. She uses her debit card whenever she fills up the tank to her car. Already twice this year, her card has been compromised, likely by a skimming device. The thieves took nearly $400 from her card.

“It was a hundred dollars from Polo in Dawsonville, Georgia, and there was a second purchase of $277.48,” she said. “I called my bank. Thankfully they were able to take off the purchases and they were able to refund my money, but it was a really big pain.”

A YouTube video taken in Vienna, Austria, explains how skimmers work.

“I went over here and noticed there is a little bit of glue. You can see it right here. Just because I’m paranoid with cyber security, I went ahead – I’ll give it a little tug so you can see how it comes right off,” said the tourist in the video.

“Skimming is a problem. It’s a lucrative business for criminals to make money off of,” said Sword and Shield security analyst Russell Van Tuyl.

He says most of us would not likely detect the skimming device recognized by the tourist.

“As an average consumer, you can’t reasonably be expected to to identify every security risk and vulnerability at an ATM machine,” he said.

However, all it takes is a little tug on that plastic device to detect the real thing. Skimmers are essentially malicious card readers that grab data off the card’s magnetic stripe. The shift to EMV chip cards still presents a problem because some merchants still require customers to use the magstripe.

“So, anytime you are able to slide that stripe somewhere, someone is still able to read the data off of it even if it has a chip on it,” said Van Tuyl.Tips to protect yourself from a skimmer:

  1. Criminals will often put a skimming device on gas pumps that are farthest from the store or at an ATM that is not well lit. Look for places that are not unattended.
  2. Study the credit card reader and give it a shake. These skimmers are meant to be placed temporarily for a matter of hours or just a day. For that reason, they are typically attached using double-sided tape or temporarily glue.
  3. Take a look at other readers at the gas station to make sure they don’t look different.
  4. Check for tamper-evident stickers. Criminals usually infiltrate credit card mechanisms through the front panel of gas pumps. They implant devices internally, and these devices then capture the credit card information from within once customer’s swipe their cards. Survey the gas pump’s edges, especially the hatch surrounding the credit card unit. If it looks battered as if someone tried to pry it open or if the lock is broke. Some gas stations, like Shell, apply a tamper-proof seal across the opening of the credit card door. When a door is broken into the sticker is lifted revealing the words “VOID” on the sticker.
  5. Look around for a place where a hidden camera may be lurking. Thieves often place one in a position where it can capture PIN information once you punch it in, like above the keypad area. For extra precaution, use two hands when paying for gas at the pump. Use one hand for the transaction, and place the other above the credit card screen to shield the keypad from view of lurking cameras above.
  6. Beware of electronic pickpockets. If you have a radio frequency ID (RFID) chip in your credit card, you are susceptible to electronic pickpocketing devices. These chips are easy to scan and allow customers the convenience of tapping — instead of swiping — their cards to make a purchase. Criminals conceal the device discreetly while walking past their victims, and use the device to scan victims’ “chipped” credit cards. Know whether your credit cards have the RFID chip; MasterCard PayPass and Chase Blink credit cards are among those that feature the chip. Most banks have already started phasing this out. Be wary of anyone who walks too closely to you at the pump. You can also wrap your RFID card in aluminum foil. It sounds funny, but it’s proven to be more effective in protecting cred card information, according to Consumer Reports.
  7. Consider going inside to pay or buy prepaid gas cards at the pump. If you purchase a gas card at Kroger you can sometimes even get more fuel points and it may save your from getting your card stolen. Or use cash. While credit cards lend convenience, if a situation just doesn’t feel right, go with your instincts and just use cash. It saves the hassle of disputing a credit card charge in the future and eliminates the chance of putting yourself at risk of long-term credit damage.
  8. Make sure to monitor purchases. Some banks will send you a text if they spot purchases that may be fraudulent.
  9. Ask your financial institution about pairing geolocation software with your card. This type of feature tracks the location of both your card and phone. When someone attempts a transaction, the card company compares the location of the phone with where the card is being used it matches it will let the transaction go through. If the card and phone locations don’t match, the card company denies the transaction. This way, if someone steals your card or card information, it would be difficult to make a purchase. You also may be able to set GPS limits on the card, making it possible to use the card within a certain geographical area, but not outside of it.
  10. Go for the chip. While EMV cards are not 100 percent safe, but they reduce your changes of fraud.
  11. Always use a credit card when paying at the pump or at a restaurant. It’s easier to stop a payment or cancel a payment then when money has already been taken from your account.

Security experts also suggest to change your habits and go inside the store to make your transaction. Investigators say bars, restaurants and gas stations are vulnerable to skimmers. ATMs inside banks are generally safer because of all the cameras and ATMs insides stores are generally safer than those outside on the sidewalk.