Updated November 27, 2013

Gas Skimming: A Pain at the Pump

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Fraudsters are targeting gas stations for easy cash, putting innocent credit-card holders at risk for identity theft. Called skimming, these schemes involve small devices that scan and save credit card numbers for thieves to later use for their shopping sprees.

As if car drivers don’t have enough to worry about amid high gas prices, these frauds are giving them more pain at the pump. Now they have to be concerned with losing valuable and identifiable financial information during routine visits at their local gas station.

In fact, this practice has become more prevalent in recent months, with cases revealed in several states, including California, Texas, and Minnesota. Scammers have inserted so-called skimming devices in credit card machines at gas pumps, readying them to pull credit card numbers and sometimes zip codes from unsuspecting customers. These tools can collect as many as 1,000 credit card numbers and result in fraudulent charges and identity theft for unwitting victims. A CBS News report on the topic suggested the practice costs the financial industry more than $350,000 a day.

In June, for example, Aleksander Goukasian, a California resident, was convicted in Texas for spearheading a skimming ring over three states that stole 38,000 debit and credit card numbers. The data was used to take $100,000 from bank accounts, according to news reports.

For these schemers, it’s a lucrative practice and a promising one as credit cards are constantly getting swiped at gas stations by customers who want to quickly get in and out of a station. And with few attendants able to keep watch on every pump and customers minding their own business, it’s easy for a fraudster to install a skimming device without detection (or possibly work in cahoots with a gas station owner or attendant to get it done).

To be sure, the National Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing claims the risk at the pump has been exaggerated and that skimming is more prevalent in situations where customers don’t see their card getting swiped (such as restaurants). The folks at NACS put together an insightful video on how gas stations can protect against skimming.

CreditDonkey recommends consumers look for the WeCare decal, a tamper-evident label that gas stations can use to help prevent tampering.

Still, gas-skimming in the news should prompt credit card holders to be careful when they pay at the pump. In July, for example, police in Minnesota pulled over a couple during a routine speed check. They were surprised to find inside the car a list of nearly 100 gas stations and addresses in the area, a magnetic card reading device, and software for skimming card data. The woman in the car claimed the list was for places to find gas. But later, police found skimming devices in six out of eight fuel pumps the couple had recently visited. The two are facing charges they allegedly implanted skimming devices and copied several people’s credit card numbers.

It’s impractical to search for skimming devices every time you visit a gas station. And you’re unlikely to notice one anyway. Instead, consider the following tips for protecting yourself.

We recommend you:

  • Use a credit card instead of debt. Do you know your credit rights? Credit cards usually offer more consumer protection.

  • If something looks unusual or odd, don't pay at the pump. While paying at the pump is convenient, it's not the only option. You could go into the store to have a cashier swipe your card.

  • Carefully watch your card. Be sure your card gets swiped only once by the cashier; be mindful that someone working at the station could be colluding on a skimming ring or running a one-person scheme.

    Learn how to protect your identity and safeguard your good name.

  • Check your credit card statements. Look at them often, at least once a week, for questionable charges or activity. This way you can put a hold on your account and work with your credit card provider to set up a new card.

    Learn how to dispute a credit card charge with our easy-to-understand guide.

Have you been a victim of credit card fraud? Contact us to share your story.

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Comments about Gas Skimming: A Pain at the Pump

  • Jack - CA from Andhra Pradesh
    on November 7, 2012 8:52 AM said:

    I think this kind of frauds could only happen mostly on poorly secured gas pumps? And why do the ATM manufacturer’s make their machines with gaps, notches making skimmers easy to be put on….?

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