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Don't Get Robbed at the Pump

By Matthew Cochrane – Jan 22, 2017 at 12:25PM

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Fraudsters are planting card skimming devices inside gas pumps to steal your credit card information. Here's how the scam works and how to avoid it.

With gas prices still well below their highs of a few years ago, many U.S. drivers feel like they're finally not being fleeced every time they fill their tank. What many may not realize, however, is that the danger of being robbed at the gas pump may be higher than it has ever been.

Image source: Getty Images.

In October 2015, most retailers either had to begin accepting EMV chip-embedded credit cards or be held liable for fraudulent credit card activity at their place of business. However, self-serving gas station pumps do not need to be equipped with card readers that accept EMV payments until October 2020.

There are a variety of reasons gas stations were given an extension on this deadline. Namely, changing out gas pumps is an extremely costly and time-consuming undertaking. Besides paying for new readers, gas station owners must also have each pump inspected for accuracy and environmental safety by state authorities before it is authorized to serve motorists.

How the scheme works

Unfortunately, this means three-and-a-half more years of thieves stealing credit card info from unsuspecting motorists. In what has become a surprisingly common scheme, fraudsters will visit a gas station, open a pump (either by unlocking it with a universal key or by unscrewing the siding), and quickly install a card-skimming device. This device will store and then possibly even transmit the swiped credit and debit cards used at that pump to the criminal.

When I first became an economic crimes detective in a suburban Florida community, I was amazed to learn how popular this scam had become. My department routinely goes through and performs inspections on the gas pumps in our city, and we almost always discover these skimming devices. The problem is so prevalent that bank and credit card fraud investigators will even come out and assist us with our citywide sweeps.

There are two basic types of gas pumps, and usually, neither features enhanced security. Thus it's easy to open them, attach a skimmer, and close them back up. If the criminals are professionals, they can do this in under a minute. Many times, the fraudsters will even send someone inside to the clerk to buy a product or distract them in some other way.

It's important to remember that most of these devices are placed inside the pump. Do not think you will be able to spot such a device from the outside.

Image source: Author. This is a circuit board inside a gas pump. The device wrapped in black electrical tape is a skimmer that was inserted.

And don't take comfort in the tamper-proof seal or tape that some gas stations place across the opening of their fuel dispensers. Unfortunately, these stickers are nearly worthless. They are often placed wrongly on the pump and are rarely replaced in a timely manner by employees after an inspection or even when paper is replaced for receipts. There have been times when I've opened a pump, and the sticker just came off the pump as I opened it. I could have easily picked it up and placed it back on. They are also easily counterfeited by fraudsters. The stickers only give a false sense of confidence. 

Here's what to do

To avoid becoming a victim of this scam, here is what I suggest.

The best way to ensure you will not be a victim of such a device is to go inside to pay for your gas. In our convenience-obsessed world, this may seem a nearly Herculean task. I get it. I rarely go inside myself, and I am completely aware of the risk. 

Instead, you can use the pump or row of pumps closest to the clerk. The vast majority of such devices will be found on the far row of pumps and on the opposite side of the pump from the clerk. This doesn't mean they're never found on pumps closer to the clerk, but in my experience, it is rare to find them in pumps that are in an attendant's clear line of sight. 

Finally, the most important thing you can do is to vigilantly monitor your money in all of your various accounts. It's extremely rare for consumers not to be reimbursed when they report card fraud in a timely manner.

All too often I have seen victims, from millennials to the elderly, try to report some manner of fraud involving their card account that occurred months ago but which they just discovered. Proving fraud at that point is nearly impossible. Surveillance video tapes are erased. Bank tellers cannot remember. Any and all evidence is gone. Worse, the more time lapses between the incident and reporting of the fraud, the harder it is to get the bank to reimburse all -- or any -- of the questionable charges.

Keep monitoring your accounts regularly and immediately report suspicious activity found on the statements. This is the single most effective step consumers can take to protect themselves from permanent monetary loss after a card has been compromised.

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