How to identify phishing and card skimming

How to identify phishing and card skimming

There’s a type of internet piracy called “phishing.” It’s pronounced “fishing,” and that’s exactly what these thieves are doing: “fishing” for your personal financial information. What they want are account numbers, passwords, Social Security numbers and other confidential information that they can use to loot your checking account or run up bills on your credit cards.

In the worst case, you could find yourself a victim of identity theft. With the sensitive information obtained from a successful phishing scam, these thieves can take out loans or obtain credit cards and even driver’s licenses in your name.

They can do damage to your financial history and personal reputation that can take years to unravel. But if you understand how phishing works and how to protect yourself, you can help stop this crime.

Here’s how phishing works:

In a typical case, you’ll receive an email that appears to come from a reputable company that you recognize and do business with, such as a financial institution. In some cases, the email may appear to come from a government agency, including one of the federal financial institution regulatory agencies.

The email will probably warn you of a serious problem that requires your immediate attention. It may use phrases such as “Immediate attention required” or “Please contact us immediately about your account.” The email will then encourage you to click on a button to go to the institution’s website.

In a phishing scam, you could be redirected to a phony website that may look exactly like the real thing. Sometimes, in fact, it may be the company’s actual website. In those cases, a pop-up window will quickly appear for the purpose of harvesting your financial information.

In either case, you may be asked to update your account information or to provide information for verification purposes: your Social Security number, your account number, your password, or the information you use to verify your identity when speaking to a real financial institution, such as your mother’s maiden name or your place of birth.

Phishing scams may also be attempted through other mediums, such as phone calls or phone text messages, posing as a bank, the IRS or other financial institution. As with email phishing, do not provide any personal information to the callers. Call the bank or agency yourself, at a number you trust (not one provided by the caller), to determine if the call is legitimate. As for text messages, simply delete those outright.

Card skimming

Card skimming is the theft of card information during a financial transaction, where a credit, debit or ATM card’s magnetic strip is read (“skimmed”) by an electronic device to obtain the card details. In some cases, thieves have installed phony card readers directly on legitimate ATM machines. Thieves will then linger nearby or even use cameras to obtain the card’s PIN as the user types it in. To avoid falling victim to this kind of scam, follow these guidelines:

  • Use ATMs that provide enough privacy to prevent others from reading your card or PIN.
  • Check the area to be sure that it does not appear that a skimming device or camera has been attached to the ATM.
  • Look for oddly placed mirrors on the ATM or vehicles situated to view the ATM through a camera or video recorder lens.
How to protect yourself
  • Never provide your personal information in response to an unsolicited request, whether it is over the phone or over the internet. Emails and internet pages created by phishers may look exactly like the real thing. They may even have a fake padlock icon that ordinarily is used to denote a secure site. If you did not initiate the communication, you should not provide any information.
  • If you believe the contact may be legitimate, contact the financial institution yourself. You can find phone numbers and websites on the monthly statements you receive from your financial institution, or you can look the company up in a phone book or on the internet. The key is that you should be the one to initiate the contact, using contact information that you have verified yourself.
  • Never provide your password over the phone or in response to an unsolicited internet request. A financial institution would never ask you to verify your account information online. Thieves armed with this information and your account number can help themselves to your savings.
  • Review account statements regularly to ensure all charges are correct. If your account statement is late in arriving, call your financial institution to find out why. If your financial institution offers electronic account access, periodically review activity online to catch suspicious activity.
What to do if you fall victim:
  1. Contact your financial institution immediately and alert it to the situation.
  2. If you have disclosed sensitive information in a phishing attack, you should also contact one of the three major credit bureaus and discuss whether you need to place a fraud alert on your file, which will help prevent thieves from opening a new account in your name. Here is the contact information for each bureau’s fraud division:

Equifax, 800-525-6285, P.O. Box 740250, Atlanta, GA 30374
Experian, 888-397-3742, P.O. Box 1017, Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion, 800-680-7289, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634

  1. Report all suspicious contacts to the Federal Trade Commission through the internet at, or by calling 1-877-IDTHEFT.