Protection at the pump: How to reduce risk of having credit card compromised by gas pump skimmers

By Cathy Tatom - Investigative Producer, Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Fueling up -- nearly everyone in Houston has to do it. For many people, all it takes to pay is a quick swipe of a credit or debit card. But that swipe could put you at risk if a crook has hidden a skimmer on or inside the gas pump.

"They put something inside the machines and it reads your numbers," Bernadean Rosenblatt said. "It caused me a lot of aggravation."

She told Channel 2 Investigates that she had no idea someone was stealing from her account until she got a call from her bank.

"The bank discovered fraudulence," she said.

Houston Secret Service Deputy Agent in Charge William Smarr told Channel 2 Investigates, "In the last eight months, the Secret Service office here in Houston has removed upwards of 60 devices from various pumps."

Since June, local law enforcement agencies and the Texas Department of Agriculture reported finding close to two dozen skimmers at gas stations across the greater Houston area.

This photo shows three women suspected of installing a skimmer at a Buc-ee's in League City.

Devices were discovered at Chevron stations on Telge Road in Cypress and off North Fry Road in Katy.

A mom and pop station on West Little York Road had two skimmers installed inside of a week, and five devices were found on pumps at an Exxon station on Northpark Drive in Kingwood.

These cases barely scratch the surface of the problem. The Texas Department of Agriculture inspects gas pumps. It has received more than 250 complaints about suspected skimmers since the beginning of 2017.

Criminals use skimmers to stealthily get your credit and debit account numbers, and account access information, such as PINs. Once they have that information, they can quickly use it to empty your checking account or open new credit accounts using your stolen information.

Skimmers are getting more and more sophisticated and harder to spot, especially if they're hidden inside the gas pump itself. Local law enforcement agencies and the Secret Service told Channel 2 Investigates that it can also be very hard to catch the criminals stealing your information with skimmers because the devices may only be in or on a gas pump for a few minutes or a few days before being moved to a new site.

So how do you protect yourself?

Paying cash is the safest thing to do. It’s the strategy Rosenblatt now uses.

"It was always very convenient for me to put my card in before but I won't do it anymore," she said.

If you do use a card, Smarr suggests paying inside or only at the pumps closest to the gas station building. He said those are the pumps that clerks can easily watch. He said crooks often install skimmers on pumps at the edges of a gas station, where they are less likely to be noticed.

Nell Reed, of Q-Mart, gave us tips on things to look for before swiping your card. Check the keypad on the machine. Does it looks shiny and new while the rest of the pump is a little weathered or dirty? That new-looking keypad could be a sneaky way of capturing your PIN or ZIP code information.

"A lot of times, people are doing overlays with 3D printers to just slap it on and, from there, they're able to steal people's credit card information,” Reed said.

The next tip is to wiggle the slot where you insert your credit card. If it's loose, don't use it. Also check for any small pinholes around the card reader or keypad. Criminals hide cameras behind those tiny holes to capture your codes.

Also, monitor your card statements regularly. You may catch unauthorized purchases faster than your bank does.

If all that seems like too much work, the big gas companies, such as Phillips 66, Shell and Chevron, are rolling out mobile pay apps that let you purchase at the pump using your smartphone.

Lou Burke, from Phillips 66, told Channel 2 Investigates how his company's app works.

"When I pull up to the pump, one, the app knows where I am 'cause I'm geolocated," Burke said.

The app requires the purchaser to use a fingerprint on their smartphone to authenticate they are at the pump and wanting to buy gas. It then sends a onetime-use code good only for about two minutes to activate the pump and pay for the purchase. As an incentive for its customers to switch to paying with the app, Phillips 66 is giving a discount of 10 cents a gallon.

Right now, there is not a single agency overseeing efforts to crack down on skimming. The Texas Department of Agriculture is asking the Legislature to designate it as the lead agency on all skimming cases so it can get a clearer picture of the problem and coordinate efforts statewide.

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