Oct. 6, 2005 -- Security may be skin deep -- at least when it comes to preventing data thieves from spying on you the next time you use an ATM.
Researchers in England have developed a thick plastic "skin" that would literally cover the familiar automated teller machines and act as a shield against unauthorized tampering.
"This top skin is clear polycarbonate and therefore any cameras or 'skimmers' will be glaringly obvious as they will be sat on top of a clear cover," Mark Rushton, one of the two design engineers with the University of Warwick in Coventry, told ABC News in an e-mail interview. "This way it will be easy for people to see anything stuck onto a cash machine that should not be there."
Over the past few years, high-tech thieves have been stealing personal bank account information from ATM users by "skimming" the data on your ATM card and your secret PIN number.
Essentially, the data thieves attach an electronic reader that captures the data from the magnetic stripe on the back of a bank card as it enters the machine's actual card reader. A pinhole camera or other spy device captures a user's PIN code. Armed with both pieces of information, skimmers can create phony cards that enable them to drain unsuspecting customers' bank accounts.
ATM manufacturers and financial institutions have taken various steps -- from adding advanced counter-surveillance technology to increasing customer awareness -- to stem skimming.
Protecting Plastic with Plastic
The plastic protector could be added onto any of the more than 400,000 ATMs scattered throughout the United States, or designed as part of new machines being installed at a bank or other site. And since it's made of simple, moldable plastic, both engineers suspect their proposed shield would cost between $400 to $600 -- a far cry from the more than $2,000 every ATM in England loses on average due to fraud each year, according to industry estimates.
"We came up with the idea while discussing an article we saw in the local newspaper. The article had a police spokesperson warning ATM users to be vigilant but not really stating what to look for," says Rushton. "We sat on the idea for a while thinking it was surely far too simple and someone must've come up with it already."
But a quick search through the English patent system showed that the inventors were on fresh ground -- at least in the United Kingdom.
Such covers -- primarily to protect against environmental damages -- have been used in the early days of ATMs. But they were often deemed more troublesome than trustworthy.
"We took the feature off the ATMs because it was high-maintenance item," says Rob Evans, a marketing director for NCR, one of the leading ATM manufacturers. "It [the plastic shield] is not a bad idea… but we've come a long way in 30 years since the first ATMs."
Instead, Evans says now most ATMs typically use a variety of hidden high-tech tools to help thwart skimming. For example, one technology called "intelligent fraud detection" used embedded sensors that can detect the signals given off by illicit electronics placed near ATMs.
"Surveillance equipment gives off electrostatic signatures when they take capture information and ship it off to where it's not suppose to be," says Evans. "IFD can detect those anomalies ... when someone places something [electronic] on the fascia of the machine, it can alert the [ATM's] owner."
Still, such technology doesn't prevent or protect against other forms of card skimming. So, Evans isn't quick to dismiss the return of a simple plastic cover either.
"One of the ways we think about security: There's no silver bullet, but there's a lot of silver buckshot," says Evans. "Anything that can slow the bad guy down or make it a much less attractive target… If I can make card skimming too hard, they [the criminals] will just go and do something else."
A Problem That Hasn't Faded Away
Indeed, law enforcement officials say card skimming has become overshadowed lately by other, larger-scale forms of electronic data theft. But the clandestine thievery hasn't gone away.
"Skimming is now considered a low-level crime and a lot less tech-savvy than say, computer intrusions into online bank databases that can yield large volumes of [customer] information," says Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, the arm of the Treasury Department tasked with investigating and protecting the nation's payment and financial systems. "But just like Dumpster-diving, skimming is still out there and still prevalent."
So could the British engineers' simple and cheap plastic cover become a fixture of ATMs near you? It is too soon to know.
So far, Pearson and Rushton have obtained a few thousand dollars of university funding to develop the idea further, but they've managed only to produce small-scale mock-ups and computer-generated models.