Debit Card or ATM Card Identity Theft

The identity theft risk with debit cards or ATM cards lies in their PIN number. There are three main ways an identity thief can steal your PIN and access your bank account.

The first is if you leave your PIN somewhere that is accessible, in the worst case if you leave your PIN recorded somewhere with your debit card. A thief who takes your purse or wallet and gets possession of your debit card can do very little with it until he gets your PIN. With your PIN he gains full access to your bank account as if he were you.

In practice, your debit card risks are greatest when using your debit card in a crowded place, especially a bar or restaurant. Being overheard or watched when giving any identity details is always risky, but when people are crowded around an ATM machine when you enter your PIN number it is obviously a dangerous situation. "Shoulder surfing" to watch what PIN you enter in these situations is a well known category of professional identity theft. Many other less obvious situations are also risky. Even when you are sure the person you are dealing with is honest, can you always be sure that everybody watching and listening nearby is too?

Being alert and conscious of the risk is a state of mind, and it is your strongest defence.

Remember that getting your debit card's PIN number is usually the criminal's prelude to the theft of your card so it can be used. Allowing a criminal to overhear or observe your PIN may therefore lead on to your physical danger in a mugging later in your evening out in order to get your card.

The third debit card identity theft risk is from magnetic strip card reader or keyboard entry logging devices - some quite sophisticated in design, sometimes using a pinhole camera to record your PIN. The identity thief attaches these devices on an ATM or debit card "hole in the wall" money-dispensing machine, to capture your card details. This is known as "skimming".

Skimming devices have become an increasing risk in recent years as technology has advanced, though they are not very common. Once your details have been captured this way, your card is usually no longer required by the criminal to access your account. They are designed to look like an official card swiping device, but a regular user is likely to notice the difference.

A similar skimming technique is possible at a point of sale, but any extra card swiping is not easy to conceal, and this form of theft is rare. Again, your best protection is being alert to what is happening to your card if it ever leaves your possession.

The key to successfully protecting your debit card identity is keeping your PIN number secure.

If you think someone has obtained your PIN but you still have your card, you can contact your bank and arrange to change your PIN number. If your card is lost or stolen, you need to act promptly to cancel it and arrange to have a new one issued, with a fresh PIN. Do not use your old PIN.

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