Card skimmers placed on gas pumps, ATMs and other points of sale can capture your card information so that thieves can make fraudulent transactions with your information. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Card skimmers at the gas pump: how to spot and avoid scams

The number of credit card skimmers at gas pumps, ATMs and other points of sale has risen dramatically over the last few years, hitting various major cities across the nation.

Skimming is a form of credit card theft where a small device is used to capture your card information during a normal card transaction.

When a card is swiped through a skimmer, the device captures and stores the details, which are either stored on a USB or on the skimmer itself, according to Greg Mahnken, a credit industry analyst at Credit Card Insider.

Thieves have to return to retrieve the devices to collect the data, so they usually leave skimmers on the points of sale through the weekend, Mahnken said.

“More advanced ones will work with Bluetooth and transmit to someone sitting nearby,” Mahnken said.

Victims of card skimming typically only notice when fraudulent charges begin appearing on their accounts days later.

There are various types of skimmers, including ones that can flip right over a card reader and others that can be plugged in inside a gas pump, Mahnken said.

Although it’s almost impossible to clone a chip card, thieves can still get enough information they need just from a card’s magnetic stripe, according to Mahnken.

If it’s a debit card, they’ll still need your pin or zip code, which means they also will try to put a pinhole camera on gas pump or even have one built right into a skimmer if the right size, Mahnken said.

Mahnken and Peggy Williams, a financial analyst, both suggest covering the pin pad with your hand, especially when using a debit card.

Covering the pin pad with your hand can help to prevent thieves from getting the necessary information to use your card for fraudulent transactions. Cory Rubin/The Signal

“I always thought that was a silly piece of advice, but the skimmer information is a lot less useful if they don’t have pin or zip,” Mahnken said.

The first step to keeping your card safe is to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you are confronting a card skimmer, Mahnken said.

“When picking a gas station, well-maintained and well-lit stations tend to inspect equipment pretty frequently,” Mahnken said. “But the safest place to use your card is in the store, as it is a very hard target for someone to hit.”

Pick a pump that’s well-lit and ideally in view of register, which can also be true of any ATM or car wash.

“Police tend to notice pumps on outer edge tend to be hit more frequently,” Mahnken said. “And if you do have a regular station, ask the cashier how often they check for skimmers to make sure they’re doing their due diligence.”

“There’s not a lot of data if any brand is getting hit more often than others,” Mahnken continued. “They don’t seem to discriminate between any brands, it really just depends on where the opportunity is.”

There are devices to scan the pump to find skimmers and most gas stations require employees to check pumps and ATMs weekly, sometimes even daily, according to Mahnken.

Chevron Corp. takes the prevention of fraud very seriously and places a high priority on security at service stations, according to Braden Reddall, senior external affairs adviser for the company.

Chevron not only places reinforced locks on pumps, but also adds seals, which are unique to the brand, on pump-access doors, so trained station operators can spot signs of tampering, Reddall said.

“While our efforts have led to increased prevention efforts, we remain highly focused on the issue and work closely with law enforcement to address any cases,” Reddall said.

If someone were to open the gas pump, the seal will read “void” or will be stretched out, Mahnken said.

Mahnken also suggests looking at the color of the seal. If it looks different from the pump next to you, something is wrong, he said. Unfortunately, it’s quite easy to purchase fake seals online though.

Another way to prevent theft is to pay with Apple Pay or Google — as those are safer methods of purchase right now, according to Mahnken.

“They take your credit card number and give you a one-time use number, and that’s what gets transmitted from your phone,” he added. That number is useless to thieves.

Williams also suggests paying with cash, which eliminates the need to use your card.

When making a transaction, both Williams and Mahnken suggest looking at the card reader itself for other signs of skimmers.

“The more primitive skimmers will be on the outside of the pump covering the real card reader,” Williams said.

“If your card reader is a different color or shape than the one next to you that should be a huge red flag,” Mahnken continued.

Both suggest grabbing the card reader and giving it a wiggle. A lot of times, thieves will simply glue the skimmer right to the pump, so if it moves, go in and tell someone.

You should also look at the pump itself. Part of the pump can usually be opened, so, along with the seals, if the keyhole looks damaged or there are pry marks, it should be a red flag, Mahnken said.

“If it looks like someone has tried to force their way in there, that’s something you definitely want to avoid,” Mahnken said.

If a skimmer is Bluetooth, it should show up on your phone, he continued.

“If you see a strange looking Bluetooth signal on your phone near a pump, it may be a skimmer,” Mahnken said. “This is pretty unreliable though because you could get a lot of false positives; like if the car next to you has a Bluetooth transmitter, it could pick it up. But if you’re the only one there, and you see a strange string of numbers and a really strong signal, it could be a skimmer.”

Williams said you should also set up fraud alerts on your credit cards.

“Nearly every issuer offers these, and many will email and/or text you when your card is used at a gas station,” Williams said.

You should be checking your card transactions frequently to make sure no fraudulent activity has occurred, she added.

“If you do notice a strange charge on your card, you can always call the number on the back of your card, go into a branch or call your bank,” Mahnken said. “I tend to forget when I make small purchases, so I ask where and when it was made. This can determine if it’s something you forgot about or actually fraudulent.”

For more information on how to dispute a fraudulent charge, visit creditcardinsider.com/blog/dispute-fraudulent-credit-card-charge/.

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