ATM scam

(First I will say that I am doing well. Happy Australia Day everyone!

I am still in Finike, but there are many here from Oz.

It has been raining a lot yesterday and today. I think that the Sunday BBQ will not be very busy today. But, we have been having very good weather, so far this Winter, so not many whines about the weather from me. At least not yet.)

Today I got a letter from some cruising friends that I have known for 30 years. They just left the Pacific and crossed the Indian Ocean and are presently in South Africa.

They were victims of an ATM scam, that I thought you should know about. Basically, they were using the ATM on the front of a large bank. She had put in her card, and pin, and selected an amount, but then the screen changed suddenly & then it asked for her bank account # because it was a screen for direct banking. She tried to end the session, but nothing happened and she could not get her card to be returned. Not Good.

There were two of them, so she guarded the machine while her husband tried to telephoned the 800 number on the ATM for help. That turned out to be very difficult to do. They found a telephone, but it was a bad connection, and they had to keep calling it over and over again, etc.

They eventually got a hold of the office center to have them dispatch a ATM service man to the bank to get their card. About 30 min later he arrived. He went inside the bank to check things.. he found a card in each of the other machines, but none in the one that took my card. A very helpful young black man who told us about a very new & troubling SCAM.. somehow they have developed a way to cause an ATM machine to keep a card after you put in your pin & ask for money. It sort of locks up. Then sometime later someone comes with some kind of device that allows the held card to be ejected & gives them the pin #. He felt in the time that they were on the phone & she was not standing at the ATM machine for just a moment, that someone came & got our card out & probably used it. He urged us to contact our bank immediately & cancel the card.

They did, but my friends fear that they will be out the US$600.00 that was charged to their card before they got it canceled.

Below, is my answer. I realize that it is long, but I hope that it has some info that can help. Anyone with related info can feel free to get in touch with me directly. We all depend on ATMs, and credit cards in order to do what we do. And I hate it when my money gets stolen.


Hi Janis & Tom,

Very sorry to hear about your ATM trouble. Normally you are not liable for the theft. Your credit card company is supposed to cover all of that, as long as you did not tell someone your password or do something stupid.

However, recently I have heard, that some banks are starting to make exceptions, like if you fall victim to certain online scams, they will not cover you.

So far, touchwood, my experience would be that every time someone has stolen my information, there was no cost to me. The credit card ate the loss. So, I strongly suggest that you pursue it with your credit card company, with that in mind.

Of course, you still get the joy of trying to figure out how to get the new cards to you overseas.

Two other suggestions, when we had a machine in Istanbul eat Janet’s card. One of us stood at the machine and would not let anyone use it, until we had canceled the card by telephone.

Second, we were able to get the card back the next day. It was late at night and perhaps on a weekend when we lost the card so, we could not reach anyone at the company that owned the ATM. Which was a large local bank. But, we did get the card back the next business day, and called the credit card company, to unlock Janet’s card.

Unfortunately, they said that they had canceled it, and apparently, as soon as they push the ‘Cancel button,’ the card is toast. It cannot be reactivated, even though it had only been in bank custody the whole time, and no one had tried to make any charges on it.

Therefore, if I were ever in that situation again, I would ask if they could freeze the card or use some other reversible technology to protect everyone, yet turn it back on again when it was safe, rather than have to airlift a replacement card to us. Because, that cost them a lot of money, and makes us wait somewhere for several days.

Fortunately, in that particular situation, the credit card company, overnighted a new card to us. And we were going to be in Istanbul for several days. So it was really quite easy to get. All things considered. Although, I’m sure it costs the credit card company US$50 or more for postage alone.

And another FYI. As far as we know, the reason that it ate the card, was that we did the math wrong on the daily allowable withdrawal for that card. Even though we thought we were certain that we had withdrawn that much successfully, on the same card, before, we had not done the currency conversion correctly in our head. We had asked for a little too much money. So it ate the card.

Frankly, that seems exceedingly stupid to me. I believe the card should have just warned us. But, I suppose it keeps bad people, from experimentally learning how much can be withdrawn. You can be sure that I am extremely careful with my math ever since that day.

On my card, I can withdraw a small, but useful sum each day. And very large sum every day IF we go into the bank and do the transaction with a human. But the ATMs are so common now, that I have not found any banks, that CAN make a cash withdrawal, inside the bank, with a human. They refuse to. They tell me it is no longer possible. Probably depends on the bank, but I gave up asking.

I assume you’re aware that there are a bunch of other scams with ATMs. Probably the best way to be up-to-date is to Google around. But, the old ones that come to mind are:

They have very official looking ATMs that are totally phony, and have nothing to do with any legitimate organization at all.

They have very compact accessories, that clip onto the front of the legitimate ATM and accept your card, but steal your info, etc.

They hide tiny cameras where they can see you punch in your pin number.

And so on.

The ATM is a wonderful convenience. The credit card that comes with my brokerage account, has no cash advance fee, no transaction fee, no foreign exchange fee, nothing at all.

In reality, it is a debit card. It is withdrawing money that is already in my cash account, but I use it like a credit card. I do not put in a pin number. I signed for it. And, if they ask me if it is credit or debit, I have to tell them credit. Unfortunately there is a fee to have the brokerage account, that I’m sure covers all of that. However, I want to have that brokerage account anyway, so the fee is just a cost of doing business for other reasons.

I can get money at no cost to me, from well over half of the ATMs that I’ve approached. So far, if the ATM company is planning to charge me a transaction fee. It tells me, before it does it. I just cancel out, at no cost, and go to another ATM.

It seems like the ATMs that are run by a bank, and on the front of the bank, usually do not charge me an extra fee. Some ATMs are freestanding. Often there will be a collection of various, independent, ATMs, all in a row, along the street.

Those seem to be more likely to charge me a fee, but some do not. Therefore, I favor the ones on the front of a bank. Also, it would be easier to counterfeit a freestanding ATM. But, I do try to look at the front of the machine carefully to assure myself that there is nothing suspicious attached over where the card goes.

As you recall, back in the dark ages, when we started cruising, you had either travelers checks, or bags of money. Those were the only two choices. And to get your bank to transfer a bag of money to you in a foreign port cost a bunch. And you had to find a local bank that was, more or less in the same fraternity as your bank. It was such a hassle, that you had to transfer several thousand dollars at a time.

So, just walking up to an ATM, which are getting so easy to find except in remote areas, is really cool. Ditto being able to do your banking paperwork, get your statements, transfer money between banks, shop for hard to find things, pay for them and have them sent to you, all of that happening over the Internet, is wonderful! If you can find a good Internet connection.

I have even had several successful experiments with buying things like a laptop battery and some vitamins, over the Internet and having it shipped directly here. Although, the vitamins did take about seven weeks to arrive, and I assumed that they had been lost. But they did come through.

Also, we had some items sent to Gibraltar. Only because, even though we were a yacht in transit, and the customs agent at the Marina in Lagos, Portugal, agreed that we should have no duty on anything that we had sent. As long as it was legal to be sent to Portugal. Yet, several times, they insisted on a huge duty. Over 50% in one case. And, several days of, taking the train to Faro, twice.

So, we reasoned that we would have it sent to Gibraltar which is a duty-free zone. The catcher is that the mail comes through Spain. And Spain hates the idea that Gibraltar is not Spanish. Even though Spain has two very ‘Gibraltar-like’ Spanish colonies in Morocco, which they think are perfectly reasonable for Spain to own.

The mail takes 6 to 8 weeks to arrive and often longer, if it is coming from America. They only hold it for five days maximum. So you must walk over to the little warehouse in an out-of-the-way location, every three days and check your mail. Otherwise it will be returned to sender. That means you cannot go cruising and leave the area, and just come back in a month, when it has arrived. You are trapped there. This was even though it was being sent, in care of the famous Shepherds Chandlery.

I don’t know what the Spanish duty, if any, would’ve been like, but ordinary mail came from America to La Linea, the Spanish city that abuts Gibraltar, in 5 to 7 days. No problem at all. A learning experience.

And lastly, as I’m sure you do also, Janet and I always had separate accounts, so that if something went screwy with one, the other one would still work. I also try to keep a little cash on board, that I could go for a while without needing a credit card of any kind. But, with the Turkish lira devaluing, it is not a good idea to have very many lira. And the US dollar is not all that stable either. But what can you do?

Fortunately, I do not feel the need to keep very much money on board. Certainly not enough that I worry about getting robbed.

And, I have a collection of different credit cards. In Europe they use the kind with little electrical contacts on the front of the card. Chip and pin, they call them. I am told that many automated service points, like gas stations, ticket machines, and the like, will ONLY accept Chip and pin cards. A year ago when I requested them, while I was still in America, there were only about three companies in the US that would give them to you without an annual fee. American Express and other big companies in America were only just beginning to offer them, and not to me. So, I approached a couple of the other companies and got one. But, so far, my ordinary cards work fine.

Last year, I found a spreadsheet showing the companies offering them and what fees they charged. This made choosing the best company for my purposes, much easier. Just now I did a Google on:

companies offering chip & pin

And it looks like there are up-to-date websites, with similar information.

I was surprised to meet several boaters that do not have any kind of credit card. And seemed somewhat aghast, that anyone would. I never pay the interest. Unless I make a dumb mistake, I always pay off the card before it is due, and even when I make a mistake, they often will refund my fee, if it is the first time I have screwed up in a long time, with that company.

I even know one couple that was using travelers checks only. But, and this was several years ago, they said that very few banks would cash travelers checks, and that they paid a substantial fee for the privilege. So, they often had to go to another city in order to be able to find a bank that they could get their money out of their travelers check. I cannot understand why they do that in today’s technology.

Well, this got much too long. But hopefully has some useful information in it for you somewhere.



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