MTA Warns Riders: Beware of Skimmers!

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The MTA is putting riders on alert after a customer discovered a skimming device at a MetroCard vending machine at the 59th St/Columbus Circle station. So if you swiped your card at the station anytime in the past couple of days, you should check your bill.

This marks the second discovery of a skimming device at an MTA station this week: A skimmer was found on Tuesday at an LIRR station in southern Nassau County. But what are skimmers? And how in the world can busy commuters be expected to spot the devices?

What is a skimmer?

A skimmer is a device that lifts information from the magnetic strip on the back of a credit or debit card. The device is attached to the slot where users swipe their cards, but are made to look as inconspicuous as possible. In addition to MetroCard and ticket machines, they can also be found at ATM's and gas pumps.

Aha! But the skimmer can't detect my PIN. So I'm safe, right?

Wrong. Often, the skimming scheme will involve an overhead camera that will record your PIN number as you punch it in. There are also fake keyboards that can be placed over the legitimate PIN entry pad to record your code.

How on top of things is the MTA?

The MTA is aware of the problem and says machines are regularly checked for skimmers and other devices. The agency is also planning a public awareness campaign to remind riders to remain cautious any time they use credit or debit cards at a MetroCard or ticket vending machine. An MTA official says riders should use one hand to cover the keypad from above whenever they enter their PIN. But the MTA also says that the best way to protect yourself from fraudulent activity is to register for an EasyPay MetroCard, which is linked to a credit or debit card and refills automatically.

How can I tell if one of these things has been installed?

Some skimmers (though not all) can be found just by examining the affected machine (The Columbus Circle skimmer was actually discovered by a subway rider). A skimmer that's been sloppily installed will sometimes have visible wires (see below).

Wires and battery of skimming device (NYPD)

Wires and battery of a skimming device (NYPD)

More easily discernible to the naked eye might be the overhead cameras that often accompany the skimmers. Those are often hidden behind "ordinary-looking" objects (like the outlet in the photo below), but those objects will often have a pin-sized hole to allow the camera the visibility to record ATM codes.

Pin hole at bottom of plug adapter mounted to cable channel located above MVM (contains camera) (NYPD)

Pin hole at bottom of plug adapter mounted to cable channel located above MVM (contains camera) (NYPD)