Skimmers are the top crime involving ATM machines around the world, but now they're moving into new territory: supermarkets.
The devices are hidden electronics that sit inside or over a card slot. When consumers swipe their cards, the skimmers scan the information and steal the data. Fake keypads or small cameras then record the customers punching in their PIN. Voila, instant access to a person's bank account or credit card information.
The devices have plagued ATMs and gas stations, given their sometimes-remote locations, which makes it easier for hackers to install the skimmers without anyone noticing. Americans continue to struggle with one major security flaw with credit and debit cards, in that many retailers still haven't switched over to the new EMV card readers that accept chip-enabled cards. Only one out of five Americans have used an EMV card, according to a survey late last year from merchant-services provider Harbortouch.
Skimmers found at the supermarket chain Safeway appear to be designed to closely fit on top of self-checkout lanes' terminals, according to the security site Krebs on Security. The devices, which were found in December, include a PIN pad, which would allow the hackers to record shoppers' personal information numbers.
"It really is further proof that people need to be really, really diligent when it comes to their credit card information," said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. "The bad guys are always coming with new, innovative ways to steal their information."
Safeway didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Consumers can protect themselves through a number of steps. First, tug on the terminals at self-checkout counters at supermarkets. If it wiggles, that could be a sign of an overlay. But that might not always be a tip-off, which is why consumers should use chip-enabled cards (and EMV readers) if they're available at stores.
Mobile payment options, such as Apple Pay, can also offer more protection than magnetic cards, Schulz said. Still, some consumers are concerned about security issues with mobile payments, according to focus groups conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts.
"Most consumers don't view them as terribly secure, when the fact is, because of some of the tech involved, they are actually quite secure, especially as compared with a credit card," Schulz noted.
Lastly, it's better to veer on the side of paranoia than failing to take the risk of hacking seriously. Checking credit card and banking statements regularly can help detect trouble as soon as it starts, although up to 90 percent of consumers fail to do so regularly or only glance at their statements.
Supermarket skimmers are "further proof that people have to be their own last line of defense," Schulz said. "No one cares as much about your money as you do."