ATM skimmers steal cash from nomads and travellers around the world every day.
But with a few simple tricks, you can avoid being skimmed – or at least reduce the impact.
Hotspots like south-east Asia and South America have become famous for ATM skimming – especially Bali and Thailand.
However, skimming can happen anywhere, including America and Europe. And many of the skimming gangs in Bali are Europeans.
Nomads at most co-working spaces have stories of which ATMs to avoid.
Unfortunately, the devices used for skimming are easily transferable – and so there’s no such thing as a ‘risk-free’ ATM.
How does ATM skimming work?
Skimmers need two things to steal your cash from a bank card:
💳 Data from the magnetic strip.
Skimmers use a few techniques – but usually combine a fake card slot (to collect data) and either a video-camera or fake keypad to capture your PIN.
How can digital nomads reduce the risk of ATM skimming?
Our ‘risk’ from being ATM-skimmed combines two things.
- Chance of being skimmed.
- Impact of being skimmed.
We can take steps to lower the chance of being ATM-skimmed. However, it’s impossible to avoid any chance of skimming – especially in countries where cash is essential for daily spending.
However, we can do a LOT to reduce the impact of skimming, by using a smart bank account setup that only exposes a small amount of cash to fraudsters.
Being smart about which bank accounts you expose to ATMs is the key to reducing the risk of ATM skimming.
And new banking services have made it easy to keep your savings secure, but accessible.
1. Keep your savings separate from your travel cash.
Only use bank cards for accounts with cash that you can afford to lose.
^ No rule is more effective for protecting your cash.
Getting skimmed for $1,000+ is like losing your university work because you kept it on one disk, rather than in Dropbox or Google Drive. It’s silly – and totally avoidable.
- Bank cards for savings accounts should live with your passport, in a secure location.
- Never put a bank card for an account with thousands of dollars on it into an ATM.
- Use prepaid cards (like Revolut) and/or a second bank account that’s reserved for your daily, low-value spending.
If you transfer just $50-100 into an account before each withdrawal, then you’re dealing with a potential annoyance rather than a devastating loss.
And with modern technology, bank transfers can be just a thumb-print and a few seconds away.
Our next few tips give you ideas for keeping your cash sensibly divided up.
2. Signup for a Revolut card (or two).
Revolut let you instantly transfer cash from your main account onto a Revolut card, then either withdraw it or pay for your items.
So, you only ever expose the cash that you’re about to spend to fraudsters.
And if your main bank account’s compatible with Apple Pay or Google Pay, then you can transfer cash onto your card from your smartphone.
Easy. And the costs are reasonable.
- International transfer rates are competitive.
- Transaction fees are free for the first $200 ($400 if you have their £6.99/month premium service).
Revolut allow two cards – so keep the second in a safe, in case you’re robbed.
Additional benefits include:
- 3-day worldwide delivery time for new cards.
- In-app card management.
- Cancel your card.
- Turn features like online shopping, or ATM withdrawals on/off.
- Virtual cards for safe online shopping.
Discover more tips to using Revolut in our online guide, here.
Signing up for Revolut (or a competitor, like N26) is a no-brainer for nomads.
3. Choose a great bank for your main account.
A bank with a slick, powerful app will help you manage money effectively – even if you’re not using their bank card to withdraw cash from a machine.
Here are a few features you should demand.
Apple Pay / Google Pay.
If you’re an iOS or Android smartphone owner, then you should demand a bank that offers Apple Pay or Google Pay (respectively).
Simply store your main bank card in your smartphone’s wallet, then:
- Leave your physical card safe at home.
- Pay for Revolut and other services using your thumbprint.
Inbuilt card management.
If your bank doesn’t offer in-app card management and allow you to instantly cancel lost cards, then they don’t value your money. So ditch them.
Extra app features that you might benefit from include:
- PIN management.
- Virtual cards, so online hackers can’t steal your main account details.
- Bank card ordering services.
- Multiple account management (more on this later!).
4. Get an extra account with your main banking provider.
Creating a second ‘side account’ with your main banking provider is a smart move.
Sometimes you might want to withdraw cash directly from your main bank account, instead of using Revolut or other prepaid services.
Instead of opening your main bank account up to risk, simply transfer the cash you need onto a side-account, then withdraw it using your second bank card.
You can carry this card in your wallet and keep the main card in your safe – where it belongs.
- If you’re skimmed you only lose whatever’s in your side account.
- If you’re robbed, you’ve still got another bank card at home in the safe.
For maximum security, you can use register your side account with Apple Pay or Google Pay instead of your main card.
If someone somehow hacked your smartphone wallet (unlikely, as they’re safer than conventional cards), then they still couldn’t access your main account.
Any modern bank should offer multiple accounts and cards, with a mobile app that allows you to easily – and instantly – move money between them.
If they don’t, just ditch them.
5. Check the ATM for suspicious devices.
Now that you’ve created a simple, sensible and safe bank account structure, it’s safe to try withdrawing cash from an ATM.
You should find a ‘safe’ location like a bank; ideally with security guards. However, even these locations aren’t guaranteed to be free from skimming devices – although they’re lower risk.
Before withdrawing cash, check for suspicious devices.
- Does the card slot move easily?
- Is the keypad soft or spungey?
A quick poke with a key can identify a badly-fitted device – although some are surprisingly sophisticated.
What does a smart bank account setup look like?
If you’ve followed these steps, you might have a setup like this.
- A slim wallet, with just two bank cards inside (Revolut and your side account).
- A smartphone, with apps for:
- Your main bank
- Apple Pay or Google Pay.
- Your main bank cards stored securely, in a safe.
If you’re skimmed, then you’ll only lose whatever cash you’d transferred over.
You can quickly change the PIN, or (for increased security) cancel the cards and order new ones (with a 3-day delivery window for Revolut).
And you’ll have your backup Revolut card waiting for you in the safe.