Thieves empty your bank as you fill up your tank

Thieves empty your bank as you fill up your tank

While convenient, swiping your debit or credit card at a gas station pump may be more risky than you think thanks to identity thieves placing credit card skimmers inside the pumps, hidden from public view and waiting to record your personal financial information so the scammers can empty out your accounts.

If you think it can’t happen to you or that the technology hasn’t reached Southeast Texas yet, you’re wrong. Police in Beaumont and Orange say several skimmers have been discovered lately and seized, but only after tens of thousands of dollars in losses.

Police in Orange seize three skimmers

Realizing your debit or credit card is missing from your wallet is a frightening prospect, but an even scarier scenario could be realizing you still have your cards but your account information has somehow been used for unauthorized charges.

That’s exactly what happened to a police officer and other victims in Orange recently.

According to a news release from the Orange Police Department (OPD), officers seized three skimmer devices from two local gas stations from Nov. 8-10.

A credit card skimmer is a device placed on a debit or credit card scanner, often at a gas station or ATM, that collects personal financial data from the card. The device records the account number on the card and keystrokes made by users entering PIN numbers or ZIP codes. Identity thieves either collect the devices to retrieve the information after placing them inside gas pumps or access the information remotely using Bluetooth technology. 

After discovering a skimmer in Beaumont in June, Beaumont Police Department Detective Derrick Fowler said the remote data collection method is becoming more and more common.

“They could be sitting in a parking lot next door downloading all your personal information,” said Fowler. “That’s really scary.”

Captain Robert Enmon said an OPD officer was the first to report fraud related to the skimmer seizures in Orange.

“We found the first one when an officer used his card and then discovered it had been used for fraudulent charges in Houston,” said Enmon. “We had checked all these pumps at this station a week before related to another fraud investigation. There was nothing there the week before.

“When the officer tried to use his card, it actually would not work at the pump, but the skimmer picked up the information anyway and his card number was used in Houston.”

Enmon said the second skimmer was found after OPD received a call from 1st Financial Bank. The bank had received a cluster of fraud reports from clients, all of whom reported visiting the same gas station in Orange, a separate convenience store from where the first skimmer was located.

“A detective immediately went there and found a skimmer,” Enmon reported. “We went back to the same station again the next day and found the third skimmer device.”

Enmon said OPD has seen a reduction in reported fraud cases since the skimmers were collected from the pumps in Orange, but between eight and 10 people were victimized during the recent incidents, resulting in monetary losses in the “10s of thousands” of dollars.

According to the veteran law enforcement officer, many stores have a “universal key” for the face of the gas tank, allowing anyone with a key access to the inside of the credit card reader. More often than not, victims of skimmers never even know the devices are there. Some stores have alarms, alerting clerks when the panel is breached, a good safety measure, said Enmon. He also suggested store owners put a padlock or even a zip tie on the panels. The lock would make it more difficult to breach and employees of the stores could check the zip ties regularly to ensure they have not been tampered with.

Beaumont detectives investigate fraud

Detectives Lisa Jardine and JoAnn Jacobs investigate fraud for the Beaumont Police Department. According to them, at least four people were victims of identity theft after using their debit/credit cards at a local filling station.

“We have four cases connected back to the same location and the same pump,” said Jardine, explaining that she could not disclose the location because the business is also considered a victim of the crime.

“These folks, all of them, have filed credit card abuse cases,” reported Jacobs. “All of them can determine that the last authentic purchase was at a gas station here in Beaumont (from Oct. 10-11).”

When officers visited the station to investigate, the suspected skimming device was long gone.

“There’s not video of the pump,” Jacobs said. “We’ve checked the pumps. We went out there and visually inspected them. We had them opened by the owner of the store, and nothing. There was nothing in there.”

That means the fraudsters had already collected the device, presumably loaded up with the valuable information of numerous potential targets.

And there was no trace of the perpetrators who placed the skimmer inside the face panel of the pump – at least not until two men allegedly used the pilfered information to make multiple purchases at local stores and to get cash at area ATMs.

Video stills from store surveillance cameras show two suspects, sometimes sporting beards and sometimes clean-shaven, making charges using victims’ filched financial information on Oct. 9, Oct. 12 and Oct. 15, say police. The men purchased gift cards, commonly utilized by thieves due to the anonymity they offer, and even made cash withdrawals for hundreds of dollars. So far, reports Jardine, the duo has taken nearly $5,000 from victims’ bank accounts.

Ultimately, the credit card companies are often left footing the bill for fraudulent charges, Jacobs asserts, which translates into higher interest rates and fees over time as the companies attempt to recoup those substantial financial losses.

Jardine said detectives first encountered a skimmer in Beaumont about eight years ago. Earlier this year, they found two more.

“We found two a couple of months ago at two separate gas stations, one in the North End and one in the West End of Beaumont,” said Jardine. “Both of those were found by service technicians who came in to service the pumps.”

One of those two skimmers was found at a local gas station June 26.

“We have found about five over eight years,” said Jardine.

Those are just the ones they found. There have been numerous reports of fraud that may have been tied to skimmers not discovered, as the recent incidents indicate.

And gas pumps are not the only place scammers are using skimmers, revealed Jacobs.

“We also seized a credit card skimmer from a local restaurant,” she said. “A waiter was using a handheld skimmer and scanning his customers’ debit and credit cards with it. A manager saw him take it out of his pocket and use it. It lit up, indicating that it was working.

“He was caught red-handed. He confessed to using the device but said he did not know how to retrieve the info. Then, we found two credit card numbers in text messages on his phone. We’re not sure yet if they were sent to someone or used.”

Stay vigilant

Jardine said that when your identity is stolen, it is important to take the appropriate steps to reclaim your name and to make sure you are not on the hook for the charges from thieves’ spoils acquired using your financial information.

Jardine instructed, “Contact your bank and contact one of the three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian or TransUnion – to put a fraud alert. If your credit card or financial information is stolen, you have to contact the credit card company. Call your credit card company and tell them to cut it off as soon as possible.” Then file a police report.

Jardine advises that when paying at the pump, it is generally best to use pumps closest to the store as businesses often have video monitoring the entrance.

She agreed with Enmon from Orange that a lot of stores do not use security tape on the face panels of the gas pumps, and said it is better if they do. If there is tape around the face or binding the panel, Jardine said to look closely at it to make sure it has not been tampered with or sliced.

“Be aware,” she said. “Go to another pump.”

Always get a receipt at the gas station or anywhere you use your debit or credit card, and keep your receipts.

She said it is safer to pay inside, and when at a restaurant, it is safer to pay at the register because, “Any time your card is out of your hands, you don’t know what they’re doing with it.”

She also recommends making purchases at the pump as credit rather than debit because the skimmers record the keystrokes as you type in your PIN, making it much easier for fraudsters to raid your bank account by getting cash out at an ATM. Some stations are installing devices with chip readers at the pump to maximize consumer safety. Fraudsters have not figured out how to get around a card scanner with a chip reader, reports Jardine – at least not yet.

According to the longtime fraud investigator, impostors and swindlers always find a way to circumvent the law and safety measures installed specifically to combat criminal deception.

“When the new money came out a few years ago, even with all the new safety measures worked into the design, we started seeing counterfeit bills almost immediately, within a couple of weeks of the new money being released into circulation. We had some of the first counterfeit currency with the new design in Texas right here in Beaumont.”

There are numerous resources available online to help people protect their identities and to assist them when their identities are stolen. Visit www.identitytheft.gov for more information about what to do if your identity is stolen.

Enmon stressed that consumers must take steps to protect themselves from fraud. His suggestion? Stay vigilant.

“Check your bank account every day – every single day,” he urged. “And check your credit card account. Report any fraudulent charges to your financial institution or credit card company immediately, and report it to law enforcement.

“Anyone can be a victim of fraud.”

BBB tips for avoiding skimmers

You need cash, so you stop at a gas station with an ATM. You head to the back of the shop and insert your card into the machine. You may not notice anything strange, but scammers have attached a skimmer to the card reader. 

Sound scary? Well, BBB Dispute Resolution Director Jay Sheppard provided the following tips to help you avoid being skimmed:

• Use ATMs at banks whenever possible. Avoid ATMs in a low-traffic or low-light areas.

• Protect your PIN. Place your hand or a piece of paper over the keypad when entering your number.

• Look for signs of skimmers. Tape is often used to attach the skimming devices; if something looks odd, wiggle it to make sure it doesn’t come loose.

• Be wary of strange signs. If something looks out of place, find a different ATM and report it to the bank or store manager, or to the police.

• If someone offers to “help” you use the ATM, immediately decline and leave. If you feel uncomfortable with the individual, go somewhere well lit or lock yourself in your car and call the police emergency number.

• Be cautious of ATM failures. If the machine doesn’t give you money, or gives you an immediate message that the machine malfunctioned, call the financial institution and let them know.

• Report any problems. Only call a number you know is real, such as the one on the back of your card. Don’t call a number posted next to the ATM, as that could be part of the scam. If you aren’t sure, call the police non-emergency number.

 

For more information, contact the Better Business Bureau and check out the BBB reliability/ratings reports of the companies you are considering. Call (409) 835-5348 or (855) BBB-SETX, 24 hours a day, or access the website at www.bbb.org.

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