Crooks can buy ATMs on eBay
Beware the stand-alone ATM, which criminals can purchase online and set up in a public spot for stealing people's account information. Even bank ATMs can be made unsafe.
The more I talk to data-security experts, the less technology I want to use. The latest convenience I've given up? Stand-alone ATMs.
If you want to know why, just hop on over to eBay and Craigslist and type in "ATM." Availability varies, but often you can find machines for sale that cost just a few hundred bucks.
Bad guys can buy these, get a computer programmer to rewrite the code and set them up just about anywhere to collect people's card information and PINs. Sometimes the machines actually dispense some cash, but often they're set up just to display an error message — after stealing your data.
This has been going on for a while now, but a bad economy seems to mean more ATMs are available as more businesses that own them go belly-up. Hence, more opportunities for crooks.
"It's easier to get the ATMs ... and it doesn't require tremendous programming skills" to set them up, said Avivah Litan, a security expert at consulting firm Gartner Research. "The hardest part is finding the right location."
They might just park it on a sidewalk. Some bolder thieves have tried placing phony ATMs outside bank branches, but they risk getting caught on the bank's video surveillance. Often it's easier to co-opt a store employee or manager.
"At a gas station, for example, the employee or the manager can get a cut for allowing the ATM to be placed there," Litan said. "Collusion tends to be part of this."
The ATM doesn't even need to be real to fool people. When security expert Jim Stickley wanted to test how easy it would be to scam people's account information a few years ago, he decided used ATMs cost too much.
"Real machines were really expensive, over $1,000, so I decided to make my own," said Stickley, the author of The Truth About Identity Theft and the chief technology officer of TraceSecurity, a risk management firm. He assembled his machines from seven-foot kiosks he bought used from a college and card readers he bought online for about $20 each.
Stickley deposited two of the machines on Sixth Street in Austin, Tex. The machines were used 42 times by 27 people over five hours, according to the "Today" show, which recorded the experiment. People used the machines even though they could have seen on closer inspection that the machines didn't have a realistic-looking cash dispenser.
"It was basically just a slit," Stickley said. "It wasn't anything close to what could dispense money."
Instead of getting money, people would get an error message. That prompted several people to try repeatedly to get the fake ATMs to spit out cash.
"They would try two or three times ... so that made sure we had the right code," Stickley said.
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