Using Credit Cards at the Gas Station? Beware of Skimming Scams

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Consumer protection officials are stepping up their warnings about a form of high-tech theft that affects consumers' credit cards and debit cards.

Devices known as skimmers are popping up more often at gas pumps around the country, officials say. Thieves attach these devices to the pumps so that they can steal account information when credit cards or debit cards are swiped. These devices also are commonly found at ATMs.

In Mississippi, state Attorney General Jim Hood is looking into reports of skimming at several gas stations in the Jackson area. Meanwhile, investigators in Wisconsin recently discovered skimming devices at 15 gas stations around the state. In early September, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development said about 70 skimmers had been removed from gas pumps statewide since 2015. And in Arizona, the Department of Agriculture reported in late August that 52 skimmers had been uncovered at Arizona gas stations this year, compared with 11 skimmers found statewide in 2015.

Hard to Detect

"These devices may go undetected for weeks, all the while gathering sensitive account information from unsuspecting consumers," Hood says. "Consumers need to call their financial institutions immediately if they see any unauthorized activity on their accounts, and watch closely for signs of tampering when using gas pumps or ATMs."

Hood says some gas stations have installed alarms, locks or security tape on gas pumps to prevent skimming.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection says skimmers come in two forms:

  • External devices. These fake card readers fit over actual card readers at gas pumps.
  • Internal devices. These are typically communication cables connected to a device that records data from credit and debit cards.

How to Avoid Skimming Scams

Authorities offer these tips to avoid becoming a victim of skimming:

  • Pick pumps close to the entrance of the gas station or convenience store. Skimmers usually target pumps that aren't near the hustle and bustle.
  • Pay with cash.
  • If you're using a debit card, choose the option to process the payment as credit so thieves can't steal your debit card PIN.
  • Lightly wiggle the card reader on the pump. External skimmers might feel loose and come off.
  • Ask gas stations and convenience stores what type of anti-skimming measures they've adopted.

If discover you've been victimized by skimming, report unauthorized use of your credit or debit card to the card issuer as soon as possible. Federal law protects users of credit and debit cards if unauthorized charges are made with a stolen card number.

"The best defense against card skimmer theft is a strong offense, so we strongly encourage shoppers to pay close attention to their monthly statements and to regularly check their credit reports," says Frank Frassetto, head of the consumer protection division at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Fixes and Threats

By October 2017, gas stations and convenience stores are supposed to have upgraded pumps from magnetic-strip readers to chip-enabled readers, thereby thwarting theft by skimming. One survey found that 81 percent of consumers expect to be able to pay with chip-enabled cards at gas stations.

In the meantime, the threat of pay-at-the-pump skimming remains. And, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the threat is great. In July, the department said it had found and removed more than 250 skimming devices over a year's time. An estimated 100 consumers are victimized by each skimming device, with an average of $1,000 stolen from each consumer, the department says.

"On average, each skimmer represents a $100,000 threat to consumers," the Florida agency says.

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