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AAA Warns Drivers of Credit Card Skimmers at the Gas Pumps

It is so stealthy a crime, it is casting a wholly different light on the idiomatic expression “pain in the pump.” Police departments in Howard and Fairfax counties, as well as other law enforcement agencies across the region, are warning area drivers “to check for card skimmers at gas stations before filling their tanks.”  In recent few days, skimmers were found at busy gas stations and ATMs in Woodbridge. It is not an isolated case. The extent of the crime is not hard to miss by dint of the perspicuity of police blotters and rap sheets in Alexandria, Bailey’s Crossroads, Centreville, Tysons Corner, Vienna, plus in and around Prince William, Frederick, and Arlington counties in Virginia; and across the Maryland state line in Columbia, Ocean City, and in Anne Arundel, Carroll, and Harford Counties.

Howard County Police warn “Skimming devices have become more sophisticated and can sometimes be difficult or nearly impossible to detect.” Yet to detect the crime and protect its customers from high tech skimmers, the Costco Wholesale Warehouse in Northeast Washington requires the crew at the gas station adjacent to the warehouse to check the security seal on the credit card reader on each pump each hour. The crew puts security seals over the cabinet panel and meticulously keeps an hourly inspection log. Once tampered with, the magenta security seal turns white, and reads “void” and “open.” Each day, “39 million Americans fill-up,” warns the National Association of Convenience Stores (NASC), “and fuel dispensers have become one of many targets for thieves looking to steal credit and debit card information by ‘skimming.’”

“The caper may crop up, lawmen forewarn, in other counties, cities and communities across the Greater Washington area, as dodgy perpetrators try to stay steps ahead of the reach of the law’s long arm and catch local consumers unawares as they purchase fuel,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public & Government Affairs. “To safeguard your debit or credit card, and protect your finances, only buy gas at stations that affix security seals to the fuel dispenser. Always remember the motto ‘Let the buyer beware’ (caveat emptor) when making a gas transaction. The internal card skimmer, which hooks up inside the gas pump, transmits stolen data wirelessly via text messages on digital mobile telephony systems.”

In the last year, police investigators in Fairfax County “removed 21 individual skimmers from 15 different locations” in the county. Now detectives with the Fairfax County Police Department’s Financial Crimes unit are warning motorists and consumers about the newest scam at self-serve gasoline pumps. Callous crooks are now inserting Bluetooth skimmers inside the card reader in the pump, compromising your credit card and robbing you blind in one fell swoop. The criminals also sell the stolen data, the FTC warns.

Short-waved credit card-skimming devices tucked inside pumps were recently detected in two gas stations in Ocean City, Maryland in July, including at a Sunoco station and at an Exxon station. Reportedly, at least 30 skimmers have been detected in Columbia and the Howard County area so far in 2017. A surreptitiously lodged Bluetooth-based skimmer was reportedly found at an Exxon gas station in Odenton, Maryland in June. Since February, at least ten credit card skimmers have been electronically dislodged from their hiding places deep inside self-serve gas kiosks at Exxon stations in Harford County, Maryland, reports the Harford County Sheriff’s Office. With stealth and sneakiness, scammers have secreted wireless technology credit and debit card skimming devices on gas kiosks in sundry other sites, including at some pumps at a Shell gas station in Arlington, Virginia in March. Last August, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office reported they were notified credit and debit card hackers had furtively implanted three credit card skimmers inside gas pumps at an Exxon station in Middletown, Virginia.

If you have a sneaking suspicion scammers have tampered with or rigged the card reader on the fuel pump, try checking it by jiggling the credit card slot to see if it is askew or asymmetrical. If so, it is probably a dead giveaway that something is amiss or awry. If you spot a broken tamper-resistant security seal on the credit card reader or a disjointed tamper-proof warning sticker on the gas pump’s receipt paper door panel, avoid using your debit card or your credit card at the site. A lawbreaker may be afoot, trying to wipe out your banking account via skimmers. Then report it to the service station operator and call the police without delay.

Fast Company describes the Bluetooth skimmers as the “new crowbars.” The Bluetooth skimmer allows crooks to clone your card and get your PIN in a matter of minutes. In March, Fairfax County Police detectives caught three men red-handed while the bold malefactors were attempting to download credit card information from skimming devices they had imbedded into a credit card slot at a gas station in Falls Church. If you are using a debit card at the gas pump and you are victimized by the caper, it will make it “more difficult to have personal bank funds reimbursed,” the Fairfax County Police Department is warning.

The Commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, Sid Miller, is advising motorists to use the Bluetooth device on their cellphones to detect the skimmers at the gas dispenser. Miller advises: “So just go to your phone. Go to settings, hit Bluetooth. If you see a long string of numbers trying to connect, or letters, that is probably not good. So stay away from there. Bluetooth technology only travels 25 or 30 feet.” In other words, “it could be a sign a skimmer is on the pump.” A Bluetooth device works by radio waves instead of wires or cables. Once it is in the “discoverable mode,” the Bluetooth technology exchanges data over short distances. To “detect Bluetooth rogues, run a Bluetooth discovery program on a laptop,” experts advise.

The new wave skimmers are harder for unsuspecting consumers to detect at filling stations, the Fairfax County Police Department Financial Crimes unit says. Even worse, “there’s no real warning sign to look for when you go to pay,” the detectives explain. Here and there, criminals are reportedly using skimmers on the card readers at gas station pumps to steal consumer’s credit and debit card information. To empower motorists to protect themselves from perps at the pumps, AAA Mid-Atlantic recommends the following:

  • Park at pumps close to the front door of the gas station if possible. Criminals tend to install the skimmers on an outside pump farthest from where the clerks can see them.
  • Check for Bluetooth skimmers embedded inside pumps at a gas station using your cell phone. Turn on your Bluetooth setting and look for a series of random numbers and letters. It may be a telltale sign a Bluetooth-enabled skimming devise is interleaved into the gas kiosk. Do not connect to the Bluetooth device.
  • Make sure the gas pump panel is closed and inspect the card reader at the pump. Look for signs of tampering. If it looks like it’s been opened or its security tape has been broken, inform the cashier and do not use that pump.
  • Pay for your gas inside the store.
  • Use cash instead of your credit card.
  • Monitor your bank statements constantly. Look for overdraft notices.  Skimming criminals may wait months before using your information and then go on a sudden spending spree.
Lee Hernly, Editor
the authorLee Hernly, Editor
Founder & Editor
Lee Hernly is the Founder and Editor of Port City Wire, Alexandria, Virginia's best source for hyper-local news, opinion, and events. I live in the Old Town Alexandria area with my fantastic wife and son Sam. Oh, there’s Serena & Bea too. I’m so excited to meet new readers and see where you are from! Please be sure to leave a comment with a link to your blog so I can check it out!

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