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High-tech bank robbers phone it in

Through a method called skimming, a digital copy of your debit card is made at a compromised ATM, and then the data is sent over SMS to awaiting criminals.

Your ordinary bank robber can now steal hundreds of account numbers from ATMs without so much as lifting a finger. Instead, he skims.

Skimming is the physical use of secondary readers to capture the magnetic tracks on the backs of credit and debit cards. On ATMs, skimmers and secondary keypads are used to capture account numbers and PINs. Often, the ATM transaction goes through, and the customer doesn't realize that the account has been compromised until later.

Two risks these high-tech criminals face are being caught fitting a faux cover over an ordinary ATM card slot and keypad, then later retrieving the skimmers in order to get the account information.

With the arrest last week of "Chao," a Turkish ATM skimmer, comes new information on the lifestyles of modern bank robbers, including details on new devices that send captured account data via SMS to their smartphones.

For about $8,000, skimmers can have their own ATM overlay capable of transmitting 1,856 cards via SMS. Bulk pricing is available. And if they don't want the information sent card by card, they can dial into the device and download the data at their convenience.

You're probably saying, "wait, I'd notice the compromise." Not so fast. These guys are good. Very good. See the photos of a compromised ATM machine on Or watch this video to see how ATM skimming with SMS was accomplished last year in Pennsylvania.

Skimming got its start in South Africa, and since 2004, there have been a handful of noteworthy cases in the United States, affecting ATMs in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas. Late last year, Citibank replaced debit cards for its Manhattan customers because of a skimming operation there.

Last February, during a presentation by Billy Rios and Nitesh Dhanjani at the Black Hat conference in Washington, I saw a photograph of a warehouse full of ATM card input overlays from one of the criminal enterprises they stumbled upon. You want black? They got black. You want beige? They have that. What about white or gray? Covered.

Industry standardization of ATM readers makes it easier for criminals to copy, so a bank robber needs only to match the look and style. A second photo showed boxes of keypad overlays. Large. Small. Again, you need only to match the look and style.

Once the account information is captured, the criminals tend to burn it onto blank magnetic stripe cards (ISO standard 7810), then use it at ATMs worldwide.

How are they able to fool so many people? In a blog on ZDNet, Dancho Danchev speculates that there might be some collusion with individuals working with ATM manufacturers. His blog is full of details from a site offering these overlays.

There is a downside to having the SMS service. As with a cell phone, the devices need batteries, which wear out. And some SMS transmissions simply fail. Still, if a criminal gets 1,500 bank account numbers, I don't think they're going to mind.