ATMs are the financial lifeblood of tourists and expatriates.
The cash-dispensing machines are often the sole means people have to put folding money into their wallets -- whether they are visiting for a short stay or living here permanently. And often the source of those funds is in a bank far to the north. If something goes wrong, getting money is -- well -- as close to impossible as I like to get.
For that reason, ATMs are our friends, just as television is to Homer Simpson. That is why, when I hear news in the vein of today's topic, my stomach tends to twist.
When I walk into my local bank, I see two ATMs -- one is pictured. There is nothing unusual in their appearance. We have all slipped our cards into similar readers around the world in the hope that the machine will fork over money from our distant accounts.
But, if you had recently used a specific ATM in Puerto Vallarta, there would have been a lot more going on. I suspect, though, you probably would not have noticed anything unusual. Here it is.
I doubt you can see it, but someone has installed a camera just above the keypad to record PIN numbers as they are entered. The covering is camouflaged as well as any iguana in the jungle. I had to look very closely before I could see the small gap between the ATM and its unauthorized accessory.
Here is the camera after it had been removed.
Of course, PIN numbers were not the only information being captured. An additional card reader was installed in front of the ATM's reader. Every time a customer would swipe the card through the reader, the ATM would capture the information -- but so would the other reader.
The result is that anyone who used the machine ran the risk of the handing over the information on his card. The scheme is covered well in a post entitled "Spike in ATM Skimming in Mexico?" What that question mark is doing there, I don't know.
We all realize that most credit card companies will not assess fraudulent charges against a cardholder unless the cardholder is a party to the fraud. But that piece of information is not at all consoling when the credit card company takes the inevitable next step -- cancelling the card.
If you live in Mexico and have a bank up north, the chances are very good that after your bank cancels the card, it will not mail the replacement card to you in Mexico. It has to go to an address up north. The trick is how to then get the card to Mexico.
Well, that is one trick. The other trick is how to survive when money no longer flows from the ATM like water from the rocks at Kadesh. I have been stuck in that situation twice. If it were not for the kindness of friends, I would have been begging for coins in front of the bank.
That is why these ATM stories matter. Having a card skimmed can easily result in being turned into an extra in Oliver Twist.
Whoever has been attaching the skimming devices (and it does not take a genius to figure it out), they are quite good at their work. Even though this particular installation resulted in an arrest. I doubt I would have ever recognized the ATM had been modified.
So, what to do?
The first is the most obvious. Use your free hand to cover the keypad while entering your PIN. I have been doing that for years. The ATMs in San Patricio have a privacy shield over the keys. I suspect those particular machines are well-protected from PIN theft.
The second is to take a good look at the ATM to see if anything looks out of place. If it does, use another machine. Our options here are rather limited. But, if there is a problem, our sole bank (Banamex) is right there.
I have seriously considered completely abandoning my banks up north and using nothing but financial institutions in Mexico. (For several reasons, Banamex is not a contender.)
This story may be the impetus I need to cut my ties with northern banks -- and Banamex.