Credit Card Skimmers Evolve – Shimmers Are Here

Credit cards are loaded with security features, but the game of cat and mouse goes on. Nefarious syndicates continue to develop technology to steal data in new and innovate ways. After SparkFun did a teardown on some illicit hardware, they were visited by local law enforcement, who requested their help once more.

[Nick] from SparkFun refers to the device in question as a “shimmer”. It’s intended to be installed inside the chip reader of a credit card terminal, in between the terminal and the user’s credit card. Fabricated on a flexible film PCB, it’s thin enough to glue inside without being obvious even during maintenance.

The investigation begins with identification of the major components on board, followed by attempts to communicate with the device. Unfortunately, the hardware was largely unresponsive, even when connected to a card reader. In an effort to learn more, a schematic was produced. [Nick]’s analysis raised more questions than answers, and the suspicion is that the hardware may have been damaged at some point. However, the basic capabilities of the device are obvious, given the ability of the hardware to interact with a card via its contacts and offload the data through the onboard nRF24L01 radio module.

Thanks to people like [Nick], and earlier work from SparkFun, we all now have a better understanding of the risks when using payment terminals out in the wild. Unfortunately, unless your local gas station is willing to let you spend 20 minutes disassembling their card reader before paying, there’s not a whole lot the individual can do about it. Stay vigilant, and if you’ve got the skinny on a skimmer, drop us a line.

Seek Out Scammers With Skimmer Scanner

Last week we reported on some work that Sparkfun had done in reverse engineering a type of hardware card skimmer found installed in gasoline pumps incorporating card payment hardware. The device in question was a man-in-the-middle attack, a PIC microcontroller programmed to listen to the serial communications between card reader and pump computer, and then store the result in an EEPROM.

The devices featured a Bluetooth module through which the crooks could harvest the card details remotely, and this in turn provides a handy way to identify them in the wild. If you find a Bluetooth connection at the pump bearing the right identification and with the right password, it can then be fingered as a skimmer by a simple response test. And to make that extra-easy they had written an app, which when we reported on it was available from a GitHub repository.

In a public-spirited move, they are now calling upon the hardware hacker and maker community to come together today, Monday, September 25th, and draw as much attention as possible to these devices in the wild, and with luck to get a few shut down. To that end, they have put a compiled version of the app in the Google Play Store to make it extra-easy to install on your phone, and they are asking for your help. They are asking for people to first read their tutorial linked above, then install the app and take it on the road. Then should any of you find a skimmer, please Tweet about it including your zip code and the #skimmerscanner hashtag. Perhaps someone with a bit of time on their hands might like to take such a feed of skimmer location data and map it.

It would be nice to think that this work might draw attention to the shocking lack of security in gas pumps that facilitates the skimmers, disrupt the finances of a few villains, and even result in some of them getting a free ride in a police car. We can hope, anyway.

Gasoline pump image: Michael Rivera [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Seriously, Is It That Easy To Skim Cards?

We’ve all heard of card skimmers, nefarious devices that steal the identity of credit and debit cards, attached to ATMs and other machines in which unsuspecting consumers use them. Often they have relied on physical extraction of data from the card itself, such as by inserting a magnetic stripe reader in a fake ATM fascia, or by using a hidden camera to catch a picture of both card and user PIN entry.

The folks at Sparkfun write about an approach they received from a law enforcement agency bearing a selection of card skimmer devices that had been installed in gasoline pumps. These didn’t rely on interception of the card itself, instead they sat as a man-in-the-middle attack in the serial line between the card reader unit and the pump electronics. Let that sink in for a minute: a serial line that is readily accessible to anyone with the pump manufacturer’s standard key, carries card data in an unencrypted form. The owner of the skimming device is the criminal, but the company leaving such a wide-open vulnerability should really be joining them in having to answer to authorities.

The Skimmer Scanner app may help keep you safe.
The Skimmer Scanner app may help keep you safe.

The device itself is quite simple and well-executed, though it appears that attachment of wires and connectors is a job left to the crook. Some boards boast excellent soldering, while others have joints that are, well, simply criminal. On the board is a PIC microcontroller, a serial Flash chip, and a commodity Bluetooth module. This last component provides the means for the miscreant to harvest their ill-gotten gains, and incidentally a handy means by which compromised pumps can be identified. The Sparkfun people have provided an Android app that interrogates any modules it encounters, and warns of any that return the signature of a skimmer.

It is sad to say that some level of crime is an inevitable feature of the human condition, and therefore it should not be an unreasonable expectation that any entity with which we trust our sensitive data such as a credit card number should take reasonable steps to ensure its security. If a bank transported customer cash through the streets as bundles of $10 bills in open handcarts it is likely that they would get into trouble very quickly, so that the pump manufacturers send card information in the clear over such a readily accessible medium should be a scandal of similar magnitude. That financial institutions prefer to cover up the problem and shift the loss onto the gas stations rather than mandate better device security from the pump manufacturers speaks volumes about their misplaced priorities.

If this topic interests you, we’ve shown you a teardown of a more traditional skimmer in the past.

Thanks [CYK] for the tip.