Webb Report: How do credit card skimmers work?


Halloween has come and gone, but settle in for a scare — someone might be watching you at the gas pump, and it’s no ghost story.

Unsavory activity at local filling stations has spread like a virus across Central Texas in the form of credit card skimmers, devices that are secretly installed at the pump and used to steal your information. This sticky-fingered tech has become so widespread in Travis County that, just days ago, sheriff’s deputies told folks to avoid paying for gas at the pump altogether. Guess you can grab a Gatorade while you’re paying inside, too.

As each new report of gas station credit card skimmers pops up, American-Statesman readers flock to read it. And as social media editor, I watch the dominoes fall: a reporter writes up news of a skimmer; we post it on Facebook and Twitter; and people start sharing the story like wildfire with their friends and family. Obviously, these little financial vampires hit Central Texans where it hurts.

So, in today’s edition of “I Google things because I’m curious and so you don’t have to”: How the heck do credit card skimmers work?

Well, we already know the basics. As the Statesman has reported pretty much each time a new skimmer rears its magnetic head, these pirate devices:

  • Read your card when you swipe it to pay for that unleaded.
  • Capture your account information from the magnetic strip on the card and your PIN or ZIP code from the keypad.
  • Send all those juicy details (often through Bluetooth) to the thieves who installed the skimmer.

Using that information, thieves then make clones of your card. Authorities say cash is the safest way to go at the pump, as you might expect. Gas stations with chip readers at the pump are also more secure, as the Statesman has reported, but not all gas stations have switched over to that technology.

That’s what a skimmer does, but as for what a skimmer entails, technology website Engadget has a handy explainer. There’s the aforementioned magnetic stripe reader that goes in or over the existing card reader. There’s also usually a tiny spy-like camera that watches you punch in that PIN. Sometimes, the thieves will use a keypad overlay that’s paying very close attention to your finger. Bada-bing, bada-boom, bada-Bluetooth — that’s all someone needs to copy your card.

According to Engadget, that’s the most sophisticated setup, but all a thief really needs is a cheap, homemade card reader — hello, 3-D printing — some paint to match the pump and double-sided tape. If they don’t have a remote connection to the data being collected, the thief will return for the device once it’s stored enough data.

Besides paying with cash inside, there are a couple other ways to guard against data theft. You can choose a gas pump close to the cashier inside, since skimmers are often installed at pumps farthest from the store. Also, run that debit card as credit. No PIN, you see.

Keep your eye on the pump, Central Texans, and don’t get skim-scammed.

Say their name

OK, Texans. It’s time for a good, old-fashioned music war. Last week, Thrillist set about the task of selecting the best band from every state in the U.S. The criteria were reasonable. The band had to have formed in the state and not have relocated there. No solo artists. Only acts that came to fame after World War II. A fuzzy cocktail of historical significance, influence, popularity and quality.

Don’t act surprised that Destiny’s Child nabbed the Texas slot, then. Think you can argue that Houston’s Beyonce Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams (*whispers inaudibly* and Farrah and LaTavia and LeToya) lack the points on any of those qualifications? Thrillist points to Destiny’s Child hits like “Say My Name,” “Jumpin’ Jumpin” and “Survivor” as a “creative footprint” that’s as big as the state they call home.”

Yeah, and also: Beyonce.

Thrillist mentions Geto Boys and Austin acts Spoon and 13th Floor Elevators as other possible contenders for the crown. But we ask you: Did ZZ Top, Asleep at the Wheel, Dixie Chicks, Double Trouble, Explosions in the Sky, the Polyphonic Spree or Butthole Surfers get a fair shake in this consideration process?

A grim and gritty reboot

Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card.

Some University of Texas students gave a classic children’s show a spooky twist in a Halloween-themed photo shoot. With some clever lighting, costumes and ears, the group created a dark take on the cartoon show and children’s book series “Arthur.”

Daniel Nkoola, a second-year film student at UT, said the idea came to him in the shower. He was born in Uganda but has lived in Texas since 2001. He reached out to Ukairo Ukairo, another student filmmaker whose video about black students wearing du-rags on campus went viral through the BET Twitter account.

“I thought it would be fun to put an edgy ‘Riverdale’ spin on a childhood show,” Nkoola said. “We talked about the nature of viral culture, how the next generation of filmmakers will have to resort to new media to put them on the map.”

The photos were shot in front of the Perry-Castañeda Library, the Dobie development and near the McCombs Business School in the university area. The shoot took about four hours and lasted until 2 a.m. Nkoola played titular aardvark Arthur and supplied the cast with the different animal ears.

The initial tweet of the photos went viral with nearly 60,000 retweets and 185,000 likes. The actor who plays Jughead Jones on “Riverdale,” itself a dark reimagining of a popular children’s cartoon, even shared the love.

“Cole Sprouse retweeted the Arthur pictures, and it felt like we made it,” Nkoola said. “The whole project was designed to circulate on Twitter.”

Nkoola said the cast also shot a “trailer” for this angsty version of “Arthur,” which will be released soon. He said he dreams of writing and directing big budget features in Holllywood. If these photo shoots are any indication, he’s got a fanbase waiting.

“The biggest surprise was that people (on Twitter) wanted an actual show,” Nkoola said. “People were not being ironic when they said ‘I would watch this show.’ It seemed to resonate with people in a way that I didn’t anticipate.”

— Maribel Molina, American-Statesman staff

Don’t wait for an owl

One of the most popular Harry Potter fan conventions in the world is headed back to the United States next year — and it’s coming to Texas.

LeakyCon, the annual convention hosted by popular Harry Potter fan site the Leaky Cauldron, will take place Aug. 10-12 in Dallas.

It’s not yet known which famous actors and creators related to the Potterverse will be appearing at the convention, but it’s sure to attract some big names. Previous events featured appearances by Evanna Lynch (who plays Luna Lovegood in the films), John and Hank Green (notable YouTube stars and Harry Potter fanatics), Dan Fogler (who plays Jacob in the “Fantastic Beasts” films) and more.

Tickets go on sale Nov. 15 and range from $59 for single-day access to $349 for the Marauder Pass, which offers the “premium experience” featuring reserved seating and autograph and photograph sessions with celebrities.

— Katey Psencik, American-Statesman staff



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