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ATM thieves come in all shapes and sizes.

There’s no dearth of sophisticated gear for the aspirational ATM thief. But skimmers don’t exactly have an aisle at Wal-Mart. In a Gizmodo investigation, they take a look at the scary internet black market where fraudsters get their tools.

When it comes to new and creative ways of pilfering personal financial data, ATM crime is enjoying something of a renaissance here in the US…

In the past year alone, devices like skimmers have been found on POS machines, inside gas pumps, on ticket vending machines, and affixed to ATMs throughout Northern California and the rest of the country. In some cases, thieves have successfully made off with tens of thousands in cash and/or personal card data before anyone was the wiser.

It gets scarier. According to a recent FTC report (.pdf), in certain parts of the country you’re now more likely to be the victim of this category of fraud while making withdrawals than direct, physical crime.

So what exactly is ATM skimming? At its most basic level, it’s when a thief affixes a phony card-reading device over the face of an ATM, and uses either Bluetooth or cellular technology (text messages) to transmit the data received from the magnetic strip to his own nefarious hands. Bam: all your debit card info are belong to criminals. That info is then either cloned onto a dummy card or sold to 3rd parties for cash money.

And good skimmers are virtually impossible to detect. Indeed, manufacturers of these devices have become so adept at customizing their components—matching everything from the color scheme of the particular banking branch to the brand of the machine—that they can blend in perfectly. Enterprising criminals have even started fabricating made-to-order versions, built around photos of specific targets. In addition to the actual skimming component, identity thieves will often hide a small pinhole camera in a brochure holder, light bar, mirror, or one of those speakers on the face of the ATM to capture victims’ PIN numbers. They also employ fake pad overlays that record which buttons are pushed.

If you get hit by one of these, a careful crook could slowly drain your account without ever even alerting you. Remember that month when you spent too much by accident and ended up in overdraft? Are you sure that you spent too much? Better take another look at that statement, chief.

But don’t take a vow of plastic celibacy just yet. Turns out, getting your greedy little hands on the necessary equipment requires an inordinate amount of patience and hard work. Even then, the would-be thieves (not you) are far more likely to be the targets of fraud. Ah, Karma.

“As with everything in the criminal underworld, the biggest issue is not getting ripped off,” says Brian Krebs. The former Washington Post staff writer who now runs Krebs on Securitysays this is especially true for those looking to break into this increasingly popular field of fraud. During the past two years, Krebs discovered one overarching trend while reporting on the myriad forms of skimmers for his site: Obtaining real, working components—without getting swindled yourself—is friggin’ hard.

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