ATM Thieves: How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

06/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I recently covered a story that started me thinking a little more seriously about identity theft. Apparently some very daring and technically astute thieves rigged some ATM machines at two bank locations and swiped half-a-million dollars from account holders.

Now mind you, they had to go into the enclosed ATM lobby to do this. Guess those security cameras are only good after the fact. At any rate, the clever criminals placed a skimming device right above the slot for the bankcard. That way whenever someone swiped a card, the skimmer recorded and stored the information on the magnetic strip. The wrongdoers also made a movie of the keypad as the pin numbers were punched in. They had positioned a tiny camera in the lighted sign directly overhead. Later they synced up the skimmer with the camera video and went to town taking from one account after another.

None of this activity was discovered until one of the bank's customers reported a discrepancy on his bank statement. And this leads to my wake-up call. How many of us really check our bank statements that carefully? Perhaps its because we don't really want to see all those extra fees we may be paying and could avoid if we only changed banks or accounts. Perhaps its because we really don't want to know how many times we went to the ATM to get cash we can't even remember spending.

However, denial and fear of unpleasant knowledge aside, checking your bank statement each and every month, online or in the mail, is one way to combat identity theft. And it's important to keep you from losing money and maybe fighting with your bank to get it back.

You see unlike with credit cards, bank debit cards don't have the same legal protections. While you're not responsible for anything beyond $50 if you report a lost or stolen credit card, the bank assumes only you or someone authorized by you has your pin number and can access your account. You're expected to check your statement and if you don't and later discover unauthorized activity, you may have to prove to the bank it wasn't you.

Could I do anything more? I picked up the phone and called Eric Gertler, author of "Prying Eyes: Protect Your Privacy from People who Sell to You, Snoop on You, or Steal from You." His words of caution: "Cover the keypad with your hands when you punch in your pin number." That's something we may not think of doing at the bank, certainly a more secure environment than an ATM at a convenience store. "Avoid convenience store ATMs altogether," counseled the security expert. And I might caution, take a peek overhead and around and make sure there isn't a little tiny camera taking your picture.

As a follow-up to the ATM caper, bank security cameras did record pictures of three men believed to be the thieves. Perhaps they'll be apprehended and made to pay for their misdeeds. However, that won't guarantee another technically talented try by someone else at another bank and time. You line of first defense literally rests in your hands.

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