Hot new crime: Thermal images of your PIN code - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Hot new crime: Thermal images of your PIN code

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - Local research finds a possible new scam Where high-tech thieves could potentially use body heat to lift your PIN code from ATMs.

Shielding the ATM keypad with your hand when typing in your PIN code can help safeguard your code from most identity thieves, but a new study from UCSD shows anyone with a special thermal camera may be able to see what the eye can't.

"A thermal camera, basically you can point at an object and it will tell you what temperature the object is," UCSD graduate student Keaton Mowery said.

These enterprising computer science grad students at UCSD decided to focus that heat-sensitive camera onto ATM keypads.

"As you touch the ATM keypad you leave a heat residue on the thing itself. You actually heat up the keypad as you touch it," Mowery said.

In the UCSD study, 21 volunteers tried out 27 randomly selected PINs on a plastic keypad and a metal one.

"So by looking at those dots where your finger touched, we could tell which buttons had been pressed," Mowery said.

The technology worked only on the plastic keypads, but not the metal one. How accurate the code information was depended on how quickly the thermal image was taken after the PIN was typed in.

"A full minute out we were still able to recover 50 percent of the codes," UCSD graduate student Sarah Meiklejohn said.

But in most cases, determining the exact order the keys were pressed was trickier. In a fraction of the cases, they could read the order, with the most recently punched key registering the highest temperature.

"It turns out the person operating the keypad makes a big difference in terms of how much residue is left. If a person was really warm-blooded or really forceful we were able to recover the order perfectly," Meiklejohn said.

What can you do to protect your PIN code from thermal camera detection? Experts advise you can simply place your hand over the entire keypad before you leave, or use a pen or plastic stylus press the keypad without actually touching it.

The researchers behind this study say they found no evidence this thermal imaging was currently being used by identity thieves. A possible reason for this is cost, with the price of a thermal camera running nearly $20,000.

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