Tora Adventure

Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.

We’ve been scammed and won’t ever really know how [Day 143]

I’d like to be able to write this in as much of a positive light as I can, but I apologise in advance if our current frustrations come through in this post.

Short Summary

The short summary is we are now in Leon, Nicaragua and we both lost our primary way of getting money from an ATM. A fluke of events where Rodora lost her debit card (later found) and my debit card got skimmed at an ATM in Santa Ana, El Salvador (we suspect). We are alive, healthy and will continue along our way, but will try and be even smarter in the future. The rest of this post is to help other travellers try and be smarter about what they do as we research how we might have been the victims.

What we think happened

We suspect our card was skimmed at a large shopping mall in Santa Ana, El Salvador called MetroCentro. It was Saturday morning and of all things it was a ScotiaBank ATM, which is a very large Canadian bank. It was sitting out in the open and did have other people trying to get money. Toby is usually careful with pulling hard on the card readers to ensure they’re not fakes. He is also careful with trying to cover his hand while typing his PIN. This keypad didn’t have the extra hand protection that seems more common these days. The ATM we chose also didn’t give us any money. The next 2 days the maximum amount was taken from the account on each day from an ATM in Florida. It took us a week to discover it after checking our banking online.

The typical scam

The typical ATM scam is fairly simple in application and a keen observer should be able to spot it. The first thing is a fake card reader placed over the top of the real one. The tip here is to pull really hard on it before you put your card in. If it is fake it then the glue will let it come off fairly easily. Clearly walk away at this point as the criminal is likely nearby watching to keep an eye on things. The other item typically used is a very small camera directly above the keypad to record you entering your PIN. This is apparently the most common method as it is cheap and effective. Always look above where you enter your PIN for anything that looks suspicious. Feel around and pull on things if you so need. The other method of recording a PIN can be an entire fake key pad glued on top of the real one. This is a more expensive item to purchase, so it isn’t as common. Use your finger nail to try and pick off the keypad before using it.


Fake keypad to record PIN's

Fake keypad to record PIN’s

Pin hole camera

Pin hole camera


A few suggested rules while travelling

Rule #1 – Check your bank statements regularly

Get into the habit of regularly checking your online bank statements, I think at a minimum of once a week depending on how often you are withdrawing money. If you’re using wi-fi through your phone or on a computer to do internet banking, also beware of the extra precautions needed for using unsecured wi-fi in unknown locations. For more detail have a look at the following link.

#2 Don’t swipe your ATM card in the security door lock

Where you need a “card” to activate a door lock to enter a lobby area with an ATM, don’t use the card you’re planning to access money with. The thieves remove the card swipe device attached to the outside door, add a skimmer, and then reattach the device to the door. The attackers then place a hidden camera just above or beside the ATM, so that the camera is angled to record unsuspecting customers entering their PINs.

The safest and easiest thing to do is to swipe another card you have that has a magnetic strip, such as a gym card, supermarket discount card etc. Be careful that you pick something that isn’t likely to hold much personal information about you on it.

#3 Don’t use an ATM on a weekend

The vast majority of skimming devices are installed on Saturdays and Sundays, when the criminals know the banks will be closed for at least a day. This means less people checking and keeping an eye on an ATM. As a result, you have a much higher chance of encountering a skimmer if you regularly use ATMs on a weekend.

#4 Carrying multiple ways of accessing cash in different places

We would suggest only using one primary way of accessing cash. This way, only one card can ever be compromised at a time. Keep your cards in separate locations while travelling. Keep some emergency cash hidden in your carry on and primary luggage along with copies of your passport and travel insurance.

#5 Be patient and careful on selecting an ATM

Don’t leave it until the last minute to get out cash. Watch a particular ATM to be used for accessing cash successfully. Make sure it is in a safe location such as a bank where a guard is there 24 hours. Be prepared to go looking at different ATM’s in different locations if something doesn’t look or feel right about an ATM.

In the end, the longer you travel, the higher your chance of some fraud occurring. Be prepared for it to occur with some emergency cash always on hand. Depending on your bank, you could easily be waiting 5+ business days for a new card to be sent to you. It could be even longer in some exotic locations with irregular mail service or depending on how the bank chooses to send it to you.

Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates.


5 comments on “We’ve been scammed and won’t ever really know how [Day 143]

  1. Pingback: Leon, Nicaragua – Surfing on the side of a Volcano [Day 144] | Tora Adventure

  2. Richard Hoptgf
    March 21, 2014

    Hi there! Just been going through your blog and are amazed at how similar our journeys have been which was freaky enough, but then i saw this post! We had THREE cards cloned in quick succession in February! We suspected Honduras La Ceiba Bus station, but could have been anywhere! This is a great piece of advice and nicely put together. You never think it’s gonna happen to you! Hope you got it all back and have long since forgotten! Happy trails.

    • Tora Traveller
      March 21, 2014

      Thanks for the comment. We did get our money back, but dealing with the bank and the whole experience is something I’d never like to repeat again. I hope your situation was cleared up quickly and your travels continued without a problem.

  3. M
    November 9, 2015

    Thank you. I will follow all of these tips.
    I am glad that you were able to resolve some of these issues.

  4. 43bluedoors
    January 2, 2017

    Thank you for the tips! We are in Leon now and traveling around Nica. We will be careful.

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