Hacked ATMs and Payment Terminals: The Hidden Danger


Hacked ATMs represent a significant but often underestimated financial threat in today’s digital age. Here at Tourist Scams, we explain why and how to mitigate the problem.

The encouraging aspect is that, at least in theory, the majority, if not all, of entities that manufacture these machines, and those that utilize them for their services (by integrating them into their systems), are genuinely interested and invested in preventing this type of cyber-attack. This commitment contributes to making such scams relatively rare. 

However, the bad news is that what is stated above is not always true. Moreover, sometimes certain flaws are identified only after damage has been done. Especially, it is very likely that victims themselves do not notice anything at all when they operate a hacked machine that involves the use of a financial card, PIN code, or chip.

Please note that even though we’re classifying it as a tourist scam, it indiscriminately targets anyone using tampered ATM, as well as Payment Terminals and Ticket Vending Machines (like those at train stations or gas pumps, for example). 

Be sure to check the Extras and Thoughts and ATM Related Scams Articles at the end to learn more.

1) How It Works

Hackers exploit flaws in the ATM’s security system, using sophisticated cracking programs and Wi-Fi scanners. Some of these tools allow them to capture and download account data from unsuspecting cardholders. 

It is very likely that victims will use the hacked ATM or payment terminal normally, managing to complete the transaction with at most some slowdown.

This type of cyber-attack on machines that manage payment and withdrawal systems has always existed and is growing. It is a continuous war between institutions (such as public law and security entities, the manufacturers of the machines, both hardware and software, and the banking and financial systems that use them) against cybercriminals who continuously seek potential exploits and flaws to use. 

It is a world in constant evolution and the lack of constant updating of anti-hacking or anti-tampering systems can bring disastrous effects both for the users and for the institutions who rely on them for their services.

three Ticket Vending Machines in the evening
Even Ticket Vending Machines can be hacked or tampered with. (Credit - Luis Moya via Pexels)

2) What You Risk

The risk associated with hacked ATMs is substantial. Once criminals have managed to enter the system, they can intercept all the data processed by it, including card data, PINs, and maybe even connected accounts data of the users who have interacted with it.

3) How To Avoid It

As previously mentioned, it can be extremely challenging, if not impossible, for users to determine if they are using a hacked ATM or Payment Terminal. Given this, we can offer the following two crucial pieces of advice:

  • Whenever possible, use ATMs that are operated by legitimate and trusted banks or financial institutions. They should provide greater security.
  • Regularly monitor your bank statements for any suspicious activities. Better yet, set up priority alerts (via an app or SMS) for every confirmed transaction.

For more advice on how to prevent this and similar frauds, or at least limit the damage, check out the 6 + 1 Ways to Prevent Card Reader and ATM Scams and the rest of our series below.

anonymous atm with graffiti near a shop window with a bright red sign
Anonymous ATMs can be dangerous for many reasons. (Credit - Jean Daniel Francoeur via Pexels)

4) ATM Related Scams

5) Extras And Thoughts

Regarding where one is more likely to encounter one of these hacked machines, the following considerations should be made. In this scam, there may not always be a need for physical tampering. Isolated ATMs may be targeted due to a lack of surveillance, while those in high-traffic areas may also be targeted due to the high volume of potential victims.

For this specific scam, there are other primary factors that influence its success, such as the quality of the anti-malware and anti-tampering security systems. Therefore, it’s crucial to remain vigilant regardless of the ATM or Payment Terminal location.

About the ATM and Card Reader Scams Series

As with most of the articles in this series, please keep in mind that:

We’re trying to avoid redundancies, to learn more it’s advisable to read the rest of the related posts and the 6 + 1 Ways to Prevent Card Reader and ATM Scams (you can find them in the ATM Related Scams section of this article, or under the Card Reader Scams tag). 

Although relatively rare, this kind of scams could happen to anyone, not just tourists. It’s not only related to ATMs but any automatic payment column working with a card and PIN (like Payment Terminals at gas stations and Ticket Purchase Terminals at train stations).

Remember, the more you know, the better.

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