Tips for minimizing danger of using an ATM card abroad
Kidnappings, rapes, robberies, counterfeit cash and phishing scams probably aren't on most Americans' minds when they head to their neighborhood ATM. But they're very real threats in some locations abroad.
That doesn't mean every trip to a foreign automated teller machine has to be fraught with peril. Being aware of possible dangers in the countries you're visiting, and putting certain precautions in place, can help ease your fears.
Before heading overseas, make sure to check the travel website run by the U.S. State Department, which carries detailed information on financial matters in various countries, as well as advice on how to stay safe.
Perhaps the most alarming is Mexico, where the State Department says women traveling alone have been kidnapped, raped or robbed, and then held captive while their credit cards or ATM cards are used.
Travelers to Colombia are warned of people being robbed after using ATMs, with the thieves often riding by on motorcycles.
In China, ATMs are known to dispense counterfeit 100 and 50 renminbi notes, and in the Dominican Republic, crooks use photographic film or paper to jam ATMs, and when the customer thinks his card is irretrievably lost and leaves, the thieves come back and steal the card.
Wiped out in South Africa
Carole Duh, an artist from Park City, Utah, had read the State Department alerts before traveling to South Africa two years ago. She thought she had her bases covered when she brought a friend along to "watch my back" when she used an ATM at a bank in Cape Town.
But when the ATM kept rejecting her request for cash, a stranger dressed in typical biker attire -- black leather, gloves and carrying a helmet -- told her she had to use the adjacent ATM if she didn't have an account at that bank.
She got an odd feeling when he took her debit card in his gloved hand and inserted it in the machine. She obscured his view of her PIN number, yet he stood alongside her as the transaction was processed and she got her cash.
A few hours later she met up with her husband, Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, and told him about the incident. Kelly immediately checked their bank account online, and it had been cleared out. "Our bank responded instantly to reimburse the account and cancel the card," he recalls.
Simple security steps to follow
While precautions aren't necessarily foolproof, following some simple steps can help mitigate safety and security threats, as well as ensure that you'll actually be able to access your cash.
"The most important rule is to remember to treat your card as cash," says Ted Carr, spokesman for Visa. At major international events, such as the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa, the potential for fraud is particularly high, he warns.
The State Department site advises travelers to such countries to only use ATMs during the day; use them inside banks, hotels, shopping malls and other big commercial facilities; and scan the area for any suspicious-looking people.
Visa and MasterCard also offer safety tips on their websites.
Because bank fraud departments are suspicious of unusual ATM activity, Bob Drumm, president of General Tours World Traveler in Keene, N.H., recommends notifying your bank of where you'll be traveling, and when. "They are cautious about changes in behavior and (card) usage," Drumm says.
An attempt to make a withdrawal from an unexpected location might result in the transaction being blocked, leaving you with no cash.
But other problems can also leave you high and dry.
If you're worried about the security of the ATM machine, you go inside the bank.
Carla Sydney Stone
Foreign ATM red flags to watch for
Mike Urban, senior director of fraud solutions for FICO, urges travelers to avoid ATMs that look dirty or in disrepair, lack sufficient lighting or have anything unusual around the card reader or PIN pad.
If your card gets stuck and a stranger says to enter your PIN number several times to get the card to come out, Urban says red flags should go up. You should leave the area without your card and contact your financial institution so the card can immediately be canceled.
Or if no cash comes out, but the ATM receipt says it did, Urban says to contact your financial institution.
Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg have run into the opposite problem. The two researchers are currently traveling across Africa for Nourishing the Planet, an effort to help alleviate hunger and poverty.
Pollack says they've inserted their card at ATMs in Tanzania, entered their PIN and the amount they wanted to withdraw, and no cash came out. A message said "unable to issue a receipt." When they checked their bank account online, they discovered missing money, which their bank replaced.
"It's something people are warning tourists about elsewhere as a new trend," Pollack says. "I guess many people don't check their bank statements, assuming since no cash was released, that no money was withdrawn from their account."
Carla Sydney Stone, a consultant for international development and technical assistance issues based in Newark, Del., has often worked in remote regions of the world. She recommends avoiding ATMs located on the street, unless accompanied by someone else. "If you're worried about the security of the ATM machine, you go inside the bank."
She also suggests getting a prepaid debit card, with only as much money on it as you'll need for the trip as a way to avoid the risk of having your bank account cleaned out.
Most important, travelers need to keep their guard up, particularly if anything seems amiss.
In retrospect, Carole Duh says "I felt that I should have paid attention to my feelings" of suspicion for the stranger. "We get so overconfident because we travel as much as we do."
See related: Compare prepaid debit cards, 7 reasons your card might be blocked, Money tips for traveling to a cash economy
Published: August 25, 2010