Credit card skimmers: How to avoid theft at the gas pumps
In one scheme, skimming devices at gas pumps managed to steal data from almost 4,000 credit cards across New York state over the span of a year, before law enforcement officials managed to bust the seven-member conspiracy.
Among the victims: a Broome County resident, whose name and debit card information was used to illegally withdraw $200 from an ATM in Florida, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
There's a chance that scams like this could happen anywhere, experts say, and though law enforcement officials aren't labeling it among the Southern Tier's more rampant crimes, multiple incidents are investigated by the region's police agencies each year.
"This is becoming a popular method of income for criminal networks," Greg Mahnken, a Credit Industry Analyst for Credit Card Insider, said recently. "Using your card, we're definitely in autopilot mode, so just having that vigilance and a little bit of a gut check can help keep you a little bit safer."
During a roughly 16-month period, a federal indictment said, personal data was stolen from almost 4,000 cards across New York. Data from many more cards were allegedly stolen during the course of the conspiracy.
There's no way to completely remove the risk, but customer security is a high priority, said Maureen Mirabito, communications manager for family-owned Mirabito Energy Products — operator of more than 100 convenience stores/gas stations in the Broome County and central New York areas.
"We have not had numerous skimming incidents that we know of to date," Mirabito said in early December. "The biggest challenge we've faced is that there's always that balance of implementing new technology but keeping the customer experience efficient and secure."
How does credit card skimming work?
Typically, credit card skimmers are small devices that are concealed on card readers — authorities say gas pumps are a popular target — to swipe personal information in an otherwise legitimate card transaction.
The skimmer operates by capturing and storing details from a card's magnetic strip, such as the card number, expiration date and card holder's name.
Thieves use that data to rack up fraudulent charges, often through online purchases or use of counterfeit cards.
How do gas stations keep it secure?
Staff members at convenience stores are trained to inspect the gas pumps multiple times per day, Mirabito said, and also to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.
About 50% percent of the company's gas pumps use chip readers, which have been described as more secure than card-swiping, and there are plans for all Mirabito pumps to convert to chip readers.
Mirabito said customers should also check for signs of tampering at gas pump panels, and make sure any security stickers haven't been torn off.
The harder it is for someone to install a skimmer, the safer you are, said Mahnken, who recommends filling up your car in a well-lit gas station that's preferably in view of the convenience store window.
Another method recommended by experts for detecting a skimmer is simply tugging at the card reader at a gas pump — typically the scam device will dislodge.
"It's difficult to prevent 100% of the time — it's human maneuvering," Mirabito said. "But we work to reduce that as much as possible, and we really have."
What happens if you become a skimming victim?
Mahnken said most banks will cover the account holder if there's fraud, as will most credit card issuers. Credit cards could be a safer option for paying at the gas pumps, he added, since you're using the issuer's money rather than your own bank account in the event a skimmer takes the information.
To catch any potential fraudulent activity, Mahnken said, it's important to keep regular tabs on your bank and card accounts, and make sure you recognize the transactions.
"Skimmers aren't getting a lot of personal information, mostly just billing information," Mahnken said, "so you're not really at risk for serious identity theft."
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How a scheme operated in New York
Members of the conspiracy charged in New York allegedly installed skimmers and harvested data used vehicles to shield themselves and the gas pumps from view, court records said.
Co-conspirators also entered the gas stations to buy merchandise in order to keep gas station employees distracted.
The indictment says one of the seven defendants, Jemnis Hernandez Gonzalez, used another a Broome County resident's name, debit card number and PIN to withdraw $200 from an ATM in Florida on Oct. 19, 2017.
Five defendants are also accused of conspiring to engage in financial transactions with money orders and gift cards obtained through the scheme that were designed to conceal the source of the stolen funds.
This helped suspects allegedly obtain cash or transfer the value of gift cards using gift card exchange websites to bank accounts controlled by the members of the conspiracy in Florida, according to prosecutors.
Law enforcement officials were able to identify and remove many skimming devices during their investigation.
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