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5 Ways to Protect Your Credit Card at One of the Most Dangerous Places to Swipe

gas station credit card skimming

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 complaints. 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.

gas station credit card fraudWhat 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 might be 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.

2. Beware of Gas Station Credit Card Skimmers

Gas station 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 might 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.

gas station scams3. 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.

Photo credit: michperu

4. Beware of Electronic Pickpockets

Possibly one of the most dangerous tactics implemented to steal credit card information is the use of electronic pickpocketing devices. These are attached to laptops that criminals conceal discreetly in laptop sleeves 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: 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 them.

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:

  1. Be wary of anyone who walks too closely to you at the pump; remain aware of your surroundings and electronic devices that might be in others’ hands.
  2. Wrap your RFID cards in aluminum foil. It sounds funny, but it’s proven 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 might 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.

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  • Ed

    i was gonna report something here but thought the crooks would catch wind and pull out before they were caught so im not gonna just yet.

  • Whity Joe Yung

    don’t use debit cards for these kinds of transactions. you do not get the kind of fraud-loss protection — by law — that you get with credit cards. it can be a hassle, but if you’re being ripped off, isn’t it better to have a $50 limit on your losses? If a debit card pin is discovered and used, your bank acct can be drained and you have no real recourse or protection established by law. You are at the mercy of the bank and what they’re willing to do to make you whole — which is usually nothing.
    Credit cards, on the other hand, are limited to $50 in losses per incident of loss or stolen card info. The issuing bank must comply with these Federal banking regulations, thus protecting you.
    Get a credit card with a small limit, pay it off every billing cycle, and use it for convenience in situations such as this. Go paperless billing for added security — no statements in the mail means no tweakers trying to steal your ID info by hoisting your mailbox contents.

  • JIM stone

    I had this happen 2 times this year at 2 different locations. $165.00 on credit card and $150.00 on a debit card. According to my bank, the magnetic strip on any card contains all the information needed to do any type transaction. ie, if you use credit and have cash advance capability or if on a debit you have overdraft protection on the card they can do a lot of damage even if you have low limits on the card. I also got a notice from a company that last june, for the entire month their system was hacked and anyone making a purchase during June credit cards were hacked for the entire month. It was so large they couldn’t figure it out but had information that I had used my card during that time. I am done with cards period, and will only use them now if mandatory for booking a flight or hotel.

  • Brown

    I used that Shell station and I had a similar issue as well. Have you seen other stories that list the location of other gas stations in the raleigh Durham area? I have several other suspicious trasactions on my card that is over 90 days ago and unfortunately the stations no longer have those images on their cameras. I really need to prove That I did not make these transaction