- By Gary Dinges American-Statesman Staff
The ability to pay at the pump makes getting gas a quick, relatively painless chore.
Unfortunately, it has also made it incredibly easy for thieves to steal your credit or debit card number and rack up hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of bogus charges.
The devices used to do this are called skimmers. They’re so small they can be placed on card readers such as the ones used by gas pumps or ATMs in a matter of seconds with no one even noticing, according to Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for Austin-based CreditCards.com.
A single skimmer will often have stored information from the magnetic strips of hundreds of cards by the time it is retrieved by crooks.
“Skimmers have been a really, really hot topic the past few years,” Schulz said. “Most every part of the country has been dealing with them.”
Austinite Gary Imken suspects his wife’s credit card was skimmed at a Northwest Austin gas station.
“She had some difficulty with the pump,” he said. “She even checked with the person inside and was eventually successful in getting gas. Shortly after that, unexpected charges began appearing on our credit card — both in-state and out-of-state. Our credit cards were never out of our possession and were only used at places (like grocery stores) where they had been used many times before.”
So he asked our Austin Answered project, “Given all the problems with credit card skimmers at gas stations, will chip card readers ever be installed as an option?”
While the bulk of retailers have switched to more secure chip-enabled cards, that’s not the case at most gas pumps. Because of the high cost of upgrading technology, Schulz said, the industry has successfully lobbied banks and payment networks to have the deadline for chip card readers at gas station pumps extended until October 2020. Their currently antiquated technology, Schulz said, has made gas pumps “low-hanging fruit for bad guys.”
The credit card industry set a deadline of Oct. 1, 2015, for banks to issue chip-enabled cards and retailers to install and activate new terminals capable of processing chip transactions.
After that date, liability for fraudulent transactions shifted to whichever party in a transaction hadn’t upgraded to the new technology. Before that, the costs always fell on the banks.
Of course, you can still find some stores that haven’t made the change, often because of a backlog in the certification process required to use the new chip software and hardware.
Chips provide significantly more security than traditional magnetic strips because rather than sending an actual card number to a retailer, the chip instead sends a unique code that’s assigned to the transaction. That means that if a crook acquired that code, it couldn’t be used to make another purchase.
Getting the chip-card technology to pumps should make the skimmers obsolete, but that might not happen until 2020. So what should consumers do to protect themselves until then? Schulz suggests taking a few extra seconds to scrutinize the pump, checking for anything unusual.
“If something looks strange, trust your instincts,” he said. “Be sure to shake the credit card slot. If it moves – if it even wobbles – there might be a skimmer.”
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There have been several recent incidents in the Austin area in which skimmers have been found on gas pumps, according to police and the Texas Department of Agriculture, which handles inspections of roughly 400,000 gas pumps statewide. In late July, for instance, three skimmers were found on pumps at the 7-Eleven at 9061 Research Blvd. in North Austin and three more were found on pumps at another 7-Eleven at 6518 Ed Bluestein Blvd. in East Austin.
That’s frustrating news for consumers like Imken, who’ve fallen victim to scammers.
“It seems like gas stations could tout chip-enabled readers as a security feature,” he said. “Something like, ‘Our station now has pumps with chip readers for enhanced security.’ I know I would be willing to pay more for gas at a station with better credit card security, especially after the recent Equifax hack has raised everyone’s attention about security issues.”
While gas pumps are a preferred target, some crooks get a little more creative, Schulz said. Some are targeting ATMs, installing a skimmer on the card reader and a tiny camera to catch you entering your PIN. You can avoid becoming a victim by using one of your hands to cover the other hand as you enter your PIN.
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Restaurants are another place to be cautious, Schulz said.
“If you give your card to someone like a waiter or cashier, they might run it through a handheld skimmer,” he said. “They’re taking advantage of people’s willingness to give up their card and have it out of their sight.”
In 2014, police said an employee of a Sunset Valley Chipotle restaurant used a handheld skimmer to obtain card numbers for later use.
Bottom line: Schulz says to scrutinize your credit card statement each month, looking for anything strange. While banks often catch unusual activity early on, that’s not always the case.
“It’s not always a big purchase,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll spend just a dollar or two to test it and see if it works. If you see that, don’t blow it off. It could be a sign of things to come.”
GET UP TO SPEED: Check out other Austin Answered stories arising from readers’ questions