New law that allows self-serve gas in rural areas may make late night gas pumpers vulnerable to credit card skimmers.
High-tech thieves target motor fuel dispensers to gain credit card information.
Add one more item for weights and measures inspectors with the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) to look for while examining motor fuel dispensers around the state. Devices known as skimmers are being used by scam artists across the country to steal personal information from credit cards used at gas pumps. The crime has come to Oregon and a recent arrest of three people in Beaverton has caught the attention of Oregon Department of Agriculture.
“As part of our routine inspections, we have been trained to look for these types of skimming devices while we inspect gas pumps for accuracy and other equipment functions,” says Josh Nelson, field supervisor of ODA’s Weights and Measures Program. “Since we are inspecting these facilities already, we are now looking for these devices. Our staff knows what they look like and we have a protocol in place on what to do if our inspectors find one of these skimmers.”
Gasoline dealers are just as anxious as anyone to protect customers and stop these crooks from gaining access to the credit or debit card information. Gas station owners and their employees are caught by surprise when they fall victim to skimmers.
Perpetrators secretly place the device into the housing unit of a gas pump just long enough to illegally gain a lot of information before removing them without being seen. Experts say it takes as little as 10 seconds for a criminal to gain access to the unit that houses the card reader and place the skimmer to intercept scanned data each time a card is inserted at the pump.
Steven Harrington, who manages ODA’s Weights and Measures Program, explains what happens once the illegal device is in place:
“When the attendant inserts a credit or debit card into the gas pump, the magnetic strip on the card is read and information is transmitted to the bank to charge a person’s account for the fuel purchase. The skimmer intercepts and makes a copy of that information and stores it on the device itself. After several swipes of cards have occurred, somebody will come back and retrieve the device along with all the card information that has been captured. That information may be sold to someone else for fraudulent purposes or sometimes fraudulent cards are made with that information and used to purchase items.”
Depending on the style of gas pump, it can be relatively easy to get into the unit and secretly install the skimmer. For certain pumps, a master key can open them all. Copies of that master key have apparently fallen into the wrong hands.
The skimmer looks like a simple device, but the scam is relatively sophisticated. Skimmers can be homemade or they can be purchased online for as little as $100 each.
Oregon’s unique status as one of two states without self-service gasoline partially protects gas stations and consumers – but not completely.
“No self-serve gasoline limits access by someone who would want to open the gas pump and install a skimming device,” says Nelson. “An attendant is more apt to notice suspicious activity. In other states with self-serve stations, a potential thief has easier access.”
Despite having gas stations attended in Oregon, many close late at night, leaving the pumps vulnerable to criminal activity. Other times, thieves will wait to see if an attendant is busy and not able to pay attention to the skimmer installation. In any event, the crime is happening in Oregon.
Last year, a ring of gas station skimmers along the I-5 corridor resulted in thousands of dollars in purchases before a trio of thieves was arrested. In September, employees at a McMinnville gas station repeatedly had trouble using the legitimate card reader on a pump. Police discovered a skimmer had been attached and had been recording information for three months. Then earlier this month, three Florida residents were arrested after Beaverton and Tigard detectives discovered use of counterfeit credit cards in the area, reportedly made after information was gleaned from legitimate credit cards used at a specific gas station. One of the suspects has been arrested twice for similar crimes in other states. A search warrant for the hotel room and vehicle the trio had been using led to the seizure of a credit card encoder, more than 240 re-encoded counterfeit credit and gift cards, skimming devices, and gas pump keys.
ODA inspectors will start looking for other skimmers with a concentrated effort in Washington County.
“Our staff has not yet found any of these devices during an inspection at this point, but we are making efforts to canvass the area and help inform gas station operators on how they can better protect themselves, their businesses, and their customers,” says Nelson. “We are developing pamphlets to hand out to operators that describe and clearly show what the skimmers look like and also list some steps they can take.”
The simplest measure is to be diligent and check all equipment at the gas pump frequently to make sure nothing is amiss. Other proactive steps that might be a bit more expensive include changing out the locks to the units or install pressure sensitive security seals on the cabinet itself. Employees would then clearly see if the seal has been broken.
For the customer who uses plastic to pay for gasoline purchases, options are a bit more limited.
“Once this device is installed in the cabinet, it’s going to be invisible to the consumer, they won’t have any knowledge that the skimmer is there,” says Harrington. “It’s really no different than all transactions using credit and debit cards. The best thing a consumer can do is be vigilant in watching their transaction statements and look for any suspicious activities that might indicate you’ve been a victim of a skimmer.”
The outreach and education to gas station owners will continue. ODA will also report any discovery of gas pump skimmers to law enforcement. There is no indication the problem is getting worse in Oregon, but it has arrived and probably won’t be going away any time soon.
In the meantime, state inspectors will keep their eyes open.
For pictures of skimmers and more information click here.