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Pumping for private information: State warns skimmers on the rise at gas stations

Before using a credit card at a gas pump, check to see if the security tape has been torn. There may be a skimmer inside. (Capitol Media Services)

Before using a credit card at a gas pump, check to see if the security tape has been torn. There may be a skimmer inside. (Capitol Media Services)

GLENDALE — A sudden spike in discovery of credit card “skimmers’’ hidden in gas pumps has state officials warning Arizona consumers how to avoid becoming victims.

Mark Killian, director of the state Department of Agriculture, said Wednesday his inspectors found 11 of the hidden devices all of last year. Last month alone, however, they detected 31 of them.

Killian, whose agency absorbed the old Department of Weights and Measures, conceded some of that may be because staffers have been more actively looking inside the gas pumps — where consumers cannot see the skimmers — to try to stem the problem.

But he said that thieves are becoming increasingly more creative in ways to quietly part customers from their money.

More to the point, the agency has just 12 inspectors to check about 12,000 gas pumps statewide. And that, Killian said, means consumers cannot rely solely on the state to find and remove the devices but actively need to protect themselves.

The problem is not isolated. A list of where inspectors have found scanners includes not only the Phoenix metro area but Kingman, Yuma and Eloy.

And some places have more problems than other, with gas station at West Ina Road and Interstate 10 on Tucson’s northwest side turning up eight of the devices.

To the naked eye, the skimmers are undetectable.

Killian said those who know what they’re doing can open a gas pump in seven seconds. Then it takes just a few more to piggy-back the scanner onto the pump’s regular card reader and close all the access doors.

He said some devices can store up to 5,000 card numbers and PINs while waiting for the thieves to return. Others are more high tech, using Bluetooth wireless technology that instantly transmits the stolen information to someone parked nearby.

Given the invisibility of the devices to consumers, Ephram Cordova, an inspector in the Division of Weights and Measures said there’s no sure-fire way for consumers to protect themselves.

“We have to be the ones out here checking on them,’’ he said. But given just 12 inspectors, that means they can check out only so many of the 12,000 gas pumps on a regular basis.

There are things customers can do.

Cordova said the first-line of defense is security tape over keyholes and other places where the machine can be opened up. A torn tape or a tape that shows signs of tampering — often with the word “void” popping up — is a sure sign to go elsewhere or pay cash.

Delia Garcia, spokeswoman for Walmart and Sam’s Club, where Thursday’s demonstration occurred, said that’s why all of her company’s pumps have such protection.

But Arizona law does not require the use of such tape by retailers.

“The public is unsuspecting and really doesn’t have any good way whether the machine has been tampered with,’’ Cordova said.

Cordova said given staffing constraints, he and his colleagues concentrate their efforts on older style gas pumps that are less tamper-resistant.

“When I’m driving, I look at suspect pumps, ones that are easily opened, ones that are easy to put skimmer in,’’ he said.

Killian said customers who come across gas pumps without security protections can ask an attendant when the last time someone opened them up to check for skimmers.

“And if they say, ‘Well, we haven’t checked in awhile,’ then I wouldn’t get my gas there,’’ he said.

Killian acknowledged that customers may be in a hurry and distracted, especially with the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

“The last thing you think about is somebody could be putting a device inside (a gas pump) to steal your credit card information,’’ he said.

Still, Killian said, there are other ways for consumers to protect themselves.

If nothing else, he if customers are unsure of whether a pump has been tampered with they should never use a debit card which takes the money directly out of someone’s checking or savings account. Killian said the best way is to use cash “or a credit card with a very low limit.’’

Michelle Wilson, an assistant director of the Department of Agriculture, said there’s another protection, albeit one that’s on the tail end: Check credit card statements and inform the issuer if there are unauthorized charges. Aside from getting the fraudulent charges removed, she said the credit card companies work closely with her agency to look for patterns and backtrack to the gas stations where the information was skimmed in the first place.

Still, Wilson said that’s no guarantee the thieves will be found.

“Sometimes the criminals will hold these numbers for a couple of months,’’ she said.

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