NYPD says 'Skim Reaper' device could curb ATM fraud

You might be carrying one in your wallet soon.


Skimming costs US consumers more than a billion dollars a year. The practice, which sees devices illegally installed on ATMs and gas station pumps to "skim" credit card information from unsuspecting users, can affect everyone. Even cybersecurity expert Patrick Traynor, who's now come up with a solution that could end the nefarious crime for good.

With the help of two graduate students, Traynor, a computer science professor at the University of Florida, has invented a device he calls the "Skim Reaper". It's an ultra-thin gadget that slots into credit card readers to detect if the machine has been tampered with. He was motivated to tackle the skimming issue after falling victim to the crime no less than half a dozen times. "I've got 15 years of experience in the field of information security," he told AP News. "If I can't protect myself reliably, who else possibly can?"

Most credit card skimmers are visually unidentifiable, and work by installing an additional "read head" in a machine, which lets criminals make a copy of any card that uses it. The Skim Reaper detects when more than one read head is present.

In February, Traynor gave the New York Police Department (NYPD) five of the devices to test, and they've been well-received by officers who have spent years tackling the problem. "I've been doing skimming for approximately five years now and I have never used anything like this or have known of anything like this," NYPD detective James Lilla, from the Financial Crimes Taskforce, told AP News. "It's definitely an assist we can use to combat ATM skimming."

Deputy Inspector Christopher Flanagan, meanwhile, said the device would allow the NYPD to free up resources, as it can be used by untrained officers. Currently, specially trained investigators are needed to identify skimming devices. "I have four detectives who do the ATM skimming full time," he said. "They're all extremely busy with the amount of work we do, so when I can take someone who is untrained, or has some more free time to go out and do these inspections, it certainly is a help."

The Skim Reaper costs $50 to make, but Traynor and his team are working to bring that figure down. They also want to shrink the device so that it's wallet-sized, allowing consumers to carry one themselves to check machines before they're used. Nolen Scaife, one of the graduate students on the project, said: "There's no greater feeling than feeling the work you're doing has wide-ranging impact. We're glad to be able to produce something that will curb the tide."