Consumers Beware: Could you spot a credit card skimmer on a gas pump?


Crooks who swipe your credit card information when you swipe your card at the gas pump are getting more sophisticated and stealthy. But they still leave clues, which you should look for to spot their schemes.

Authorities are ramping up efforts against card skimmers, which collect your information to create counterfeit cards, make online purchases or sell to other thieves who will do the same.

The devices used to be stuck on pump card readers from the outside. Observant motorists sometimes could see them, as they were loose or looked out of place. But now, most of the gadgets are stashed inside the pump, as the crooks exploited a weakness in pump security — master keys issued by manufacturers could be used at any of the manufacturer’s pumps. It didn’t take long for the crooks to get their hands on the keys.

The modern skimmers often have technology to transmit stolen card information electronically, meaning thieves don’t even have to return to retrieve a skimmer and risk getting caught. They usually must be nearby, though, within wireless range.

In addition to gas pumps, it can occur on card readers at store checkout counters and at automatic teller machines.

While internal skimmers are difficult to detect, it isn’t impossible. You may see signs that someone was inside the pump. If the security seals are broken or if the pump’s face plate is loose, rickety or open, don’t use it.

You also can protect yourself by wisely choosing which gas pump to fill up at. Remember, no matter where thieves are stashing their skimmer, they still have to tinker with the pump. Common sense says they’re more likely to select pumps farthest from the station attendant or in dark areas. Gas stations that aren’t open 24 hours a day also may be easier targets. So, you may want to use pumps that are closest to the station attendant and are well-lit.

Merchants and pump manufacturers are combating this crime by designing new pumps that shut off anytime they are opened without the knowledge of the gas station operator. And those master pump keys are being phased out in favor of unique keys and screws.

HOW TO AVOID CARD SKIMMERS

• Choose gas pumps closest to and within sight of cashiers.

• Use ATMs in well-lit, secure locations. Avoid standalone ATMs in corners of stores or out-of-the-way areas.

• Look at the card reader slot and surrounding areas for anything that looks out of place, mismatched or loose.

• Make sure no one is watching you enter your PIN, or filming you on a cell phone.

(Source: Pennsylvania Banking and Securities Secretary Robin Wiessmann)

By Paul Muschick

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Paul Muschick of The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) helps consumers fight errors, incompetence and arrogance by businesses, governments and institutions.