How your cellphone can help detect skimmers at gas stations

HOUSTON – Skimming is a growing crime. It's when thieves copy your credit card information with devices they put on or inside credit card readers or pay terminals.

Gas station pumps are an easy target because crooks can put the skimmers in the pumps away from the store where employees can't easily see them. Inspectors with the Texas Department of Agriculture have found 15 skimmers at seven Houston-area gas stations since April.

You can see them all on this interactive map.

How to Spot a Skimmer

Look for screwdriver marks or any indication around the pump that it has been pried open. When thieves put skimmers inside the pumps, they use Bluetooth technology so that the device can wirelessly send the stolen credit card information to the thieves. This lowers their chances of getting caught because they don't have to go back and retrieve the skimmer from the pump. 

Texas Department of Agriculture inspector Michael Archer said you should give the gas pump a once over before you swipe your credit card, but you can also use your smartphone to try and find skimmers. 

How to Use Your Smartphone to detect a skimmer

- When you pull up to the pump, go to "settings" on your smartphone. 
- Then go to your Bluetooth. Turn it on. 
- Your phone will start scanning for any Bluetooth signals in your area. Archer said if you see one that comes up with a long line of letters or numbers that you're not familiar with, there's a possibility there may be a Bluetooth transmitter there. It could be a skimmer. However, the numbers that pop up could be from any Bluetooth, maybe in a vehicle next to yours.

The app Skim Plus can help weed out the false positives. Skim Plus also scans for Bluetooth signals when you open it at the pump. Then it alerts you and lets you know if a skimmer has been detected or if it found nothing and it's safe to pump.

The app is free for Android phones. Keep in mind, the app will only look for skimmers that use Bluetooth. Not all of them do. That is why it is still a good idea to look around the pump, wiggle the card reader and check the keypad to see if any foreign devices have been added on top of them or if they have been modified in any way. 

TDA inspectors check pumps for skimmers only when they receive complaints from the public. If you suspect there may be skimmers at a gas station, call 1-800-TELL-TDA to report it. 

Starting Sept. 1, law enforcement will no longer be able to release the names of businesses where they've found skimmers. A bill that passed in the most recent legislative session in Austin prohibits them from making the information public.