Bank Card Precautions for Travelers

ATMs are the best way to get cash in Europe — just be on guard against the most common scams.
By Rick Steves

As with preventing other kinds of theft, the key to averting fraud is to protect your personal information.

Protect your credit and debit cards. Take to Europe only the credit and debit cards that you expect to use, plus a backup, and keep them safely in your money belt. Upon returning home, verify the balance and charges on your debit and credit cards. Some travelers monitor balances as they travel, though accessing a financial account online can be risky.

Safeguard your PIN code. Memorize your personal identification number; you’d be surprised how many people foolishly write it on their card. “Shoulder surfing” — a thief watching you as you type your PIN into a keypad — is a common problem. When entering your PIN, carefully block other people’s view of the keypad, covering it with your free hand. For more, see “ATM Scams,” below.

Use your credit card sparingly. Restaurant servers and shop clerks might try to steal your credit-card information, sometimes by swiping it in a special machine that reads the card or by surreptitiously snapping a photo of it with their mobile phone. Most European restaurants have portable card readers that waiters bring to the table; it’s more secure since your card never leaves your sight. Overall, though, the safest way to pay for your meals and other purchases is with cash.

Use your debit card only at ATMs. Because a debit card pulls funds directly out of your bank account, potential charges incurred by a thief are scary — it’s your money that’s gone, and it will stay gone until the fraudulent use is investigated by your bank. For that reason, I use my debit card only for cash-machine withdrawals. To make purchases, I pay with cash or a credit card.

If your card is lost or stolen, report it immediately, as your liability is linked to timely reporting (you’ll likely be on the hook for only $50, but it’s still worrisome). If you’re concerned about this, talk to your bank about setting a daily withdrawal limit for your ATM or debit card; you’ll have to weigh the convenience of withdrawing large amounts of euros from your accounts...against the risk of a crook doing the same. Note that this limit applies to cash-machine withdrawals, not purchases.

What to do if your card is stolen: If your credit or debit card is stolen, report it immediately by making a collect call to your credit-card company (Visa: 303/967-1096, MasterCard: 636/722-7111, American Express: 336/393-1111).

ATM Scams

While ATM fraud happens more often in the US than in Europe, it pays to be alert. Again, try to use ATMs at banks — thieves shy away from surveillance cameras. And watch out for these common ATM scams:

Card Skimmers: Criminals attach a skimming device to the card reader and place a camera nearby to capture your keystrokes as you enter your PIN. Usually, the crooks sell the information to others, who make a new card and use it to withdraw money at a later date. Beat this scam by inspecting the front of the ATM: If anything looks crooked, loose, or damaged — or if the entry to the card slot bulges out dramatically — it could be a sign of a skimming device. And always cover your hand as you enter your PIN.

Card Traps: Thieves insert a thin ribbon of tape into the card slot. The loop traps the card so you think it’s been “eaten” by the ATM. Then a Good Samaritan arrives, telling you that you can retrieve your card by retyping your PIN. (While you do it, he memorizes your code.) Or there is a sign asking you to enter your PIN twice if there is trouble. Since your card still won’t eject, you eventually leave to call your bank. As soon as you’re gone, the criminal removes your card and uses it with your PIN to withdraw money. If your card gets stuck, look for a trapping device — and never re-enter your PIN.

Money Grabbers: These scammers work in pairs — the first one distracts you after you’ve entered your card and PIN; the second one grabs your cash. There are many clever ruses used to distract you. The scammer may pretend to sell you a newspaper, she may place a €5 bill at your feet and tell you that you dropped some money, or she may ask you for a charitable donation. Sometimes the scammers are children. Pay attention to strangers loitering near the machine and remember that you’re most vulnerable just after you have entered your PIN and the withdrawal amount.