Living in a mostly cashless society often makes life simpler, but our reliance on cards while travelling can leave us vulnerable card skimming scams. To help you avoid being scammed on your next trip overseas, discover our expert advice on evading credit card scammers.
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Credit and debit cards – and multicurrency bank accounts – have made accessing and spending money overseas incredibly easy. Instead of spending time tracking down ‘legitimate’ money exchanges and nervously carrying around wallets full of foreign currency, we can now simply tap our bank card to pay and make frequent incremental withdrawals at local ATMs almost anywhere in the world.
However, making use of this modern-day convenience also makes us vulnerable to scammers.
“Credit card skimming is a risk we face at home in Australia, but it also impacts travellers across the world,” said Paul Trotter, Cover-More Assist’s Intelligence and Security Lead.
Discover Paul Trotter’s advice on how to protect yourself from card skimming, plus what to do if your cards are compromised while travelling.
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What is card skimming?
Card skimming is a type of money fraud that occurs when card information is stolen from your credit card, debit card, or bank card. When this information is stolen by criminals, they can withdraw money from – or spend money in – your accounts extremely quickly and easily.
Bank, debit, or credit card skimming can occur if you use an ATM with a card skimming device installed, pay for something on a dodgy website, swipe your card in the payment machine while making in-store purchases, or even while your cards are in your wallet.
Is card skimming common in certain countries?
Unfortunately for travellers, skimming is common across the world.
“While Mexico, Brazil, and the United States have the highest rates of credit card fraud globally, credit card skimming is a common occurrence in many destinations,” explained Trotter.
“Card skimming is not limited to popular tourist destinations, and, instead, tends to be more prevalent in those destinations where EFTPOS and ATM transactions are most common.
“Travellers should always be aware of the potential for card skimming and ensure they protect their cards accordingly because often you won’t realise you’ve been skimmed until it is too late.”
How can I protect myself from credit card skimming before my trip?
Here are six ways you can help safeguard yourself before you travel:
- Notify your bank or credit card company of your upcoming travel plans. They'll then be aware of – and watch out for – the possibility of fraudulent activity, plus take steps to prevent it.
- Choose a credit card that offers fraud protection. For example, some cards will offer you free credit monitoring or insurance against fraudulent charges.
- Keep your card information safe. Never write down your PIN or card number in a public place.
- Keep your bank balance low. This will limit the amount of money scammers can steal if you do fall victim to bank card skimming.
- Add a daily limit to your credit card to reduce the amount of charges that can be made each day.
- Get a back-up debit or credit card you can take with you on your trip in case you are a victim of card skimming and need to cancel your card.
10 tips for avoiding credit card skimming while you’re travelling
There are a few measures you can take to help defend yourself against card skimming.
1. Use a prepaid credit card or travel card
“A good defence against card skimming is to use a pre-paid credit card, which can be topped up with a simple transfer from your primary account,” suggested Trotter. “This way, the card itself will only ever have limited funds, so if you are skimmed, thieves are unable to access your entire savings.”
2. Choose well-lit ATMs in public areas or inside banks
Be on guard when using ATMs and be careful which ATMs you use. If possible, use ATMs inside banks: they’re more secure in terms of bank security (many have cameras pointing at the ATMs), limiting the risk of a skimming device being installed. It’s also a lot less obvious drawing out cash inside a bank than on the street.
3. Assess ATMs before you use them
It can be tricky to spot if an ATM or self-service terminal (for example, at a service station, retail store, restaurant etc.) has been tampered with. Look at the machine before you slot your card into it. If any elements appear suspicious, avoid using it.
Signs to watch out for include:
- Adhesive markings or noticeable damage to the card reader.
- Unusually wide card slots.
- Unusual plastic panels or objects like a brochure holder that have been added above or near the card reader or PIN pad. This could contain a camera.
- The keyboard sits higher than usual.
- There are unexpected malfunctions while using the ATM or payment terminal.
4. Protect your PIN
It’s always a good idea to cover the keypad with your spare hand when entering your PIN, in case a camera is installed.
“You should also place your fingertips on all the keys before you go to leave a heat signature across the whole keypad and not just your PIN keys,” advised Trotter. “This helps prevent someone from stealing your PIN via a heat signature device. It's wise to do this while using EFTPOS machines overseas, too.”
5. Don't let your card out of your sight
Always keep an eye on your card when paying for something. Make sure the person behind the counter doesn't take it out of your sight.
6. Enable two-step authentication
This way, even if someone does manage to get your card information, they won't be able to use it unless they also have access to your phone.
7. Set up transaction alerts via your banking apps.
You'll be notified immediately if there's any suspicious activity on your card.
8. Don't click on suspicious emails
Card skimmers often send out phishing emails to get your card information. Be sure to never click on any links or attachments in these emails, as they may contain malware that can infect your device.
9. Don't make purchases on public Wi-Fi
If you must use public Wi-Fi, avoid doing any sensitive activities such as online banking. This is because public Wi-Fi networks are often not secure, and your card information could be compromised.
If you must use public Wi-Fi:
- Only use secure websites when making online purchases while travelling. If a website is secure, its URL will start with "HTTPS" (instead of (HTTP"), which means your information will be encrypted and less likely to be compromised.
- Use a VPN (virtual private network) on your devices, which makes it more difficult for third parties or criminals to steal data.
10. Regularly check your accounts
The reality is most people won’t know they have fallen victim to card skimming until a fraudulent transaction occurs.
“While travelling, do your best to regularly check your account’s transaction history so that you can quickly identify any issues and lodge false payment disputes with your bank or financial provider,” suggested Trotter.
Can I avoid credit card skimming by using phone or smartwatch payment apps?
Using smart payment apps can help reduce the likelihood of bank card skimming; however, they aren’t a fool-proof option.
“Phones are a popular target for pickpockets and thieves, particularly in tourist destinations,” advised Trotter. “If you lose your phone, you will also lose the ability to make payments until you can replace the lost phone with an alternative, which can cause chaos if you’re overseas.”
Plus, some destinations may not support these services, so it’s wise to have a physical card on you as a backup if you choose to use Apple Pay or Google Pay while travelling.
What should I do if my credit card is skimmed while I’m travelling?
We all want to avoid being a victim of credit card skimming, but given it’s common among travellers, it’s best to be prepared.
Here’s what to do if your card is skimmed while you’re travelling internationally:
- Immediately report it to your bank or credit card company and follow their internal policy. Your bank will then cancel your card and issue you a new one.
- Use your back-up travel debit card or credit card in the interim. (It’s always smart to travel with a backup card to prepare for scenarios like this, especially if your new card can’t be sent to you overseas.)
- If need be, have a family member or close friend wire transfer emergency funds.
- Once you have your new card (whether it’s a physical card or stored online), be sure to change any online passwords that were associated with your old card.
- Remember to update any recurring payments you had set up (such as rent, bills, and subscriptions etc.) with the new card information.
Sylvia – a traveller who entered our Travel Trip-ups* competition – went on holiday to Los Angeles and decided to book a bus trip around Las Vegas with her credit card. The man who sold her the tour ticket swiped her card, said it didn’t work, then wiped the card on his trousers before swiping again.
A day later, she tried to use the card and discovered it was overdrawn. She realised the scammer must’ve had a card reader in his pocket, and by the time she contacted her bank to cancel the card, he had already spent a few thousand dollars of her money.
Fortunately, she could use her husband’s card for the rest of trip, but it’s stories like Sylvia’s that remind us that card skimming can happen swiftly and can easily ruin a holiday.
Does travel insurance provide cover for card skimming?
If you are concerned about your cards being skimmed or stolen while away from home, it’s worth considering protecting your trip with travel insurance. Before purchasing a policy, make sure you read the Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) carefully to ensure you’ve got adequate cover for card skimming.
At Cover-More, we can provide cover for circumstances like card skimming on all our International Plans (Basic, Comprehensive, and Comprehensive+) under our Luggage and Travel Documents benefit.
If your card is used illegally while you’re travelling on a Cover-More policy, and you – as the cardholder – are held legally liable for the amount spent on the card, we can provide financial support. For cover to apply, you must comply with all the conditions of the issue of the card prior to and after the loss or theft.
Want more information on your legal liability as a cardholder? Speak to your bank or card issuer before you depart on your trip.
Cover-More Assist – our 24/7 emergency assistance team – can also contact your card issuer if your debit or credit cards are stolen or lost while you’re away from home.
For more information about eligibility criteria, limits, and terms and conditions of our cover, please read the PDS.
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*The travel stories submitted as part of our Travel Trip-ups competition are the reported personal experiences of each individual and are provided for information purposes only. Cover-More does not guarantee or warrant the accuracy, completeness or validity of any of the stories. Any views, opinions, and positions expressed by the winners and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Cover-More travel insurance. Claims are assessed in accordance with the terms and conditions, limitations and exclusions (including, limits and sub-limits) set out in the applicable Combined FSG/PDS based for the chosen plan and level of cover. Any advice provided is general advice only. For more information, always read the Combined FSG/PDS and any other policy documentation to make sure that your chosen cover and policy is right for you.