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Consumers typically worry about credit card fraud when making purchases online or conducting ATM transactions, but over the past few years, fraudulent credit card activity has taken the form of gas station scams that use technology to victimize patrons.
According to the FTC’s 2011 Sentinel Network Data Book, which reports on consumer complaints, credit card fraud was ranked second among the highest and most prevalent complaint. Despite the fact that gas stations have been on thieves’ radars for quite some time, many consumers still fail to recognize the tell-tale signs of gas station credit card fraud at the pump.
I, too, learned the hard way, as I fell victim to gas station credit card skimming a few months ago. It occurred at the Shell gas station I regularly visited, just one block from my home. Fortunately, I happened to check my account balance the very next morning, only to find a second unauthorized Shell transaction for about $7 at a gas station 50 miles away from my home.
It’s moments like these that frighten consumers into avoiding credit card use altogether. But by practicing a short ritual of security measures before swiping a credit card at the gas pump, you can safeguard sensitive card information.
1. Look for Tamper-Evident Stickers
Criminals usually infiltrate credit card mechanisms through the front panel of gas pumps. They implant devices internally, which then capture the credit card information from within once customers swipe their cards.
What to look for: Survey the gas pump’s edges—especially the hatch surrounding the credit card unit. If it looks battered as if someone tried to pry it open or if the lock itself is broken, it may have been compromised. Some gas stations, like Shell stations, apply a tamper-proof seal across the opening of the credit card door. When a door is broken into, the sticker is lifted revealing the words “VOID” on the sticker.
I went back to the pump I’d used the night before my credit card information was stolen to investigate whether it really did have the sticker in place. There it was—displaying the word “void.” In fact, all the pumps had their seals tampered with. I haven’t gone back to that station since.
What to do: Before using a gas pump, find out whether the pump has a tamper-evident sticker. If it has one that is placed on the unit correctly (i.e. across the opening of the door) and it reads void, move on to the next pump or station.
Instead of informing the gas attendant (many only offer a look of confusion or annoyance), contact the local authorities to report the gas station scams in the area. This will hopefully get an investigation started if enough reports of gas station credit card fraud are forwarded.
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2. Beware Credit Card Skimmers
Credit card skimmers are external devices thieves attach over a real credit card slot at a gas station pump. As customers swipe their cards into the skimmer, the device saves and stores card information immediately.
What to look for: If a credit card slot looks different from the other card readers at the station, it may be a setup for gas station credit card skimming fraud.
What to do: Skimming devices are meant to be placed temporarily for a matter of hours or just a day. For that reason, they are attached using only double-sided tape, so thieves can easily remove them. Before sliding a credit card through the machine, tug on the reader to ensure it is on securely; skimmers will easily pop off with mild effort.
Contact the police to file a police report if a credit card skimmer is found — this is a necessary step so that the device can be placed safely in the hands of authorities.
3. Block View of Pinhole Cameras
These inconspicuous cameras are so small that cardholders really have to be paying attention to spot them. They are sometimes used in conjunction with credit card skimmers to capture footage of customers entering their PIN numbers. With this added information, criminals can withdraw funds directly from bank accounts, as well as make fraudulent credit card purchases.
What to look for: Again, search for anything on the face of the gas pump that looks unique compared to the other pumps. Pinhole cameras are often situated above the keypad area.
What to do: For extra precaution, use two hands when paying for gas at the pump. Use one hand for the transaction, and place the other above the credit card screen to shield the keypad from view of lurking cameras above.
4. Beware of Electronic Pickpockets
Possibly one of the most dangerous tactics used to steal credit card information is the use of electronic pickpocketing devices. These are attached to a laptop that criminals conceal discreetly in a laptop sleeve while walking past their victims. No contact is needed for the device to scan credit cards—thieves only need to be a few inches away.
What to look for: The cardholders susceptible to this kind of gas station credit card fraud are those with a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip implanted in their cards. Some names for these credit cards include “PayPass” or “Blink,” and allow customers the convenience of tapping their cards to make a purchase, instead of swiping it.
What to do: Some banks like Chase, who refer to their RFID cards as Blink, have already started to phase this feature out. However, those who still own a RFID-capable card can do two things to protect themselves:
- Be wary of anyone who walks too closely to you at the pump; remain aware of your surroundings and electronic devices that may be in their hands.
- Wrap your RFID cards in aluminum foil. It sounds funny, but it proved more effective in protecting credit card information than expensive $60 RFID-specific wallets on the market, according to Consumer Reports.
5. When in Doubt, Use Cash
While credit cards lend convenience, if a situation just doesn’t feel right, go with your instincts and just use cash. It saves the hassle of disputing a credit card charge in the future, and eliminates the risk of putting yourself at risk of long-term credit damage.
If cash isn’t a possibility, cardholders also have the option of handling the transaction with the gas station attendant. However, customers still take on a small risk, as there is no guarantee that the employee isn’t using a credit card skimmer behind the counter.
These days, I never swipe my credit card without implementing my gas pump checklist. I may look wacky, but it’s this level of awareness and common sense that can actively prevent gas station scams from making me a two-time victim.