Credit card skimmers are a growing problem | How you can protect yourself

This is one of the devices Austin Police detectives recently recovered from a gas station in Austin. They say criminals are adding cell phone technology to these devices so they can access credit card information from anywhere.
↓ Advertisement ↓

In two minutes someone could be sharing your credit card information with criminals all over the world.

It's a high tech heist that is becoming more sophisticated. And the Austin Police Department said a different gas station is hit every other day.

In football it's often said the best defense is a good offense. It's the opposite when you fill up with gas.

“That's the best you can do is have a good defense for this,” said Detective Mike Morgovnik with APD's financial crimes unit. He is pretty much the lead tackler when it comes to credit card skimming.

“The devices are inside the machine, so unfortunately there is no way for the public to know a pump has the device attached to it,” he said.

↓ Advertisement ↓

State starts tracking the problem

The state just began tracking skimmers in April. Since then, inspectors have found nearly 29 skimmers inside gas pumps at 17 stations -- mostly along interstates and most of them in Austin. And the crime is becoming more sophisticated.

This interactive map shows which gas stations the Texas Department of Agriculture has identified as having skimmers since April. These are the only the ones the state has received calls about or that have been reported to the state agency. The descriptions and complaints in the map are from state records.

“Other states are seeing devices that have cell phone signals so somebody anywhere in the world could have a text message sent to them with customer information with credit card information without ever having to go back to the pump,” Morgovnik said.

“They'll plug it in right here,” said Nathan Wilson, pointing to the inside of the gas pump behind the number screen. Wilson is the Assistant Regional Director for the Department of Agriculture out of the San Antonio Office.

Wilson showed that it takes just seconds to get inside a pump.

“Most pumps in the U.S. are made by one of three manufacturers,” Morgovnik said.

So people can often buy keys and the skimming devices online or on the dark web.

“All they have to do is unplug, plug in and they're done,” said Greg Fryer with the Texas Department of Agriculture.

“We don't tolerate cattle rustlers, horse thieves or cheats at the agriculture department,” said Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. “Our inspectors are now opening every pump as we do calibrations. We’ve got a whole new set of rules coming out."

The growing problem

These criminals are smart and fast -- making it difficult to catch them.

“It's next to impossible,” Greg Kelley remains in the Williamson County Jail Friday after final testimony in a three-day hearing where he's seeking to have his child sex assault conviction overturned.said. “You'd have to catch someone in the act of placing the device because the ones they are using now are blue tooth-enabled and potentially cell phone-enabled. The criminal never has to go back to retrieve the device.”

Gas stations were supposed to have chip technology installed in their pumps this October. That has now been pushed back to 2020. That's in part because of cost. It’s expected to cost $30,000 per store for the new machines. It is why detectives said this crime is likely to get worse before it gets better.

“This is a huge problem nationwide, not just specific to Austin,” Morgovnik said.

And the winning team is running away with the ball. Or, in this case, your money.

How can you avoid it?

So here are a few things you can do to minimize your risk:

  • Avoid the outer gas pumps. Pick a pump in view of the clerk
  • Never use a debit card when you pay for gas. In fact, if you can, pay in cash
  • If you can't pay in cash, check your credit card statements daily
  • Scan for Bluetooth devices when you go to the pump. If you see anything with a long number, don't use that pump and notify the gas company or the state

“A lot of these skimmers use Bluetooth technology that will have a long string of letters or numbers. It won't say ear phones or car audio,” Agriculture commissioner Miller said.

Officials also ask that you look for security stickers at the pump. Some gas stations have started to put stickers that say “'We care' official security seal" over the pumps near the credit card machines. If the seal on those stickers is broken, you will see the word void underneath. That tells you the pump has been tampered with and you should notify the gas station and not use the pump.

Austin police detectives said the fraud won’t show up on your credit card for weeks -- sometimes months. So it can be difficult to know where the criminals stole your information.