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 which 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. 

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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.

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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 set-up, but all a thief really needs is a cheap, homemade card reader — hello, 3D 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.

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