I always chuckled while watching my wife work an ATM. She skulks up to them like a commando. She looks up. She looks back. She covers the keys with her hand, squinting at the digits through the cracks between her knuckles. But after mocking her for years, it’s time that I took some lessons.
I’m writing this from a café in Vancouver. In a few hours, I’ll pick my wife up at the airport. She’s not going to be happy. With just a handful of Canadian dollars in my wallet, I needed some cash for breakfast this morning. But the ATM said no. My commando had cancelled the card. Then I got her text. “Nine million rupiah got taken from your account in a single day last week.”
You can bet it wasn’t her fault. I went online to convert the currency. It was $675. I know it could have been worse—a lot worse. We might buy a house this month, so my savings account is flush. And I rarely check my bank balance.
Last month we were in Bali. The thief likely lives there. But stateside Americans, also, are under financial attack. The Wall Street Journal reports that ATM thefts are at their highest point in 20 years. Many thieves use a method called skimming. They install devices that record a card’s magnetic strip. Sometimes, a tiny camera records people entering their personal pin numbers.
Criminals often make counterfeit cards, allowing them to withdraw cash at an ATM. FICO says that debit-card theft at bank ATMs increased by 174 percent from January 1st to April 9, 2015, compared to the same period last year. It’s even worse at nonbank ATMs. Theft is up 317 percent.
Constance Gustke, writing for Bankrate.com, listed four things we can do to reduce our odds of getting fleeced.
- Cover your pin number. Tiny cameras can see what the human eye cannot.
- Use familiar bank-located ATMs. Machines in airports, grocery stores and those located in dark areas at night are easier to tamper with.
- Frequently check your bank balance. If you don’t report your theft within 60 days, you may not get your money back.
- Observe the ATM. Look for anything that’s unusual. If your card doesn’t fit right, try a different ATM.
Even more frightening is the thought that somebody could drain your investment account.
When I was 12 years old, I read the New York Times bestsellerCatch Me If You Can. It was made into a movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a true story about a teenager named Frank W. Abignale. During a five-year span he cashed fraudulent checks totaling more than $2.5 million. Abignale says that massive theft is much easier today.
In 1974, he became an FBI consultant. Today, he’s one of America’s top document fraud experts. He has helped develop programs to counter cyber crime.
Last month, Abagnale spoke to 1,400 people at Minnesota’s biggest annual gathering of technology security experts. The Star Tribune reported him saying, “I have never witnessed, nor will I live long enough to witness, a more simplistic crime than me stealing your identity. That would be like you asking me to count to three. One, two, three. That simple.”
He blames the information we foolishly give away. To prevent identity theft, he says you should use a microcut shredder to turn documents into confetti, instead of strips or diamonds that could be put together. He also stresses never to post your birthdate or birthplace on any social media site. “If on your Facebook page you happen to tell me where you were born and your birthdate, then I’m 98 percent of the way to stealing your identity.”
The younger the individual, the more desirable their personal information is to cyber thieves. “A 2-year-old gives you a much longer time to become that 2-year-old and use that identity before that person becomes of an age to know their identity had been stolen,” says Abignale.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission says that money can easily be taken from online brokerage accounts. Use personal firewalls and security software packages if you’re doing financial transactions online. Such packages should contain anti-virus, anti-spam, and spyware detection features.
To make things safer, ask your brokerage if you can use a security token. These are small devices that generate one-time pass-codes every 30 or 60 seconds.
Never download a file, a program or a pop-up advertisement from an unknown source. It could upload software that will spy on your transactions.
Never respond to emails requesting personal information. I’ve seen plenty of these. Many claim to be from from Yahoo! or Gmail. Ignore them.
Change your banking and brokerage passwords regularly. Avoid banking on wireless networks (they may be less secure) and always log completely out of your accounts.
Sloppy ATM behavior cost me $675. It was a cheap education. Watch out for yourself, whether online or at the ATM. It might sound creepy, but somebody’s watching you.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.