Holiday travelers should use caution when paying at the pump this week.
The FBI is warning of an increase in the use of so-called credit card skimmers that can steal card data.
The agency reports the arrests of eight people in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana on charges of aggravated identity theft and says the investigation is still underway.
Credit card skimmers are electronic devices designed to look like real credit card readers. Identity thieves place them over the actual card readers on gas pumps, or in some cases switch the fake readers with the real ones.
When consumers swipe their cards on the skimmer, it records the data, which the thieves retrieve later. It's an old tactic, but one law enforcement is seeing more and more.
“As advances in technology influence almost every aspect of our daily lives, it is important to remember these same advances allow the unscrupulous to prey on unsuspecting members of the public,” said Amy Hess, FBI Special Agent in Charge for the Western District of Kentucky.
Self defense steps
Motorists can protect themselves by being especially observant when they prepare to fill their tanks. Before inserting a card into a gas pump card reader, look at it closely–skimmers are not always that easy to spot.
Blogger Krebs on Security notes that some skimmers are very small and are attached to the front of the card slot. When a consumer inserts a card, the skimmer captures the data, along with the real card reader.
The thieves come back later and remove the skimmer and retrieve the stolen credit card information. They use it to create clone cards that can be used to make numerous unauthorized purchases.
Advances in skimmer technology have made the scam even more dangerous. In addition to capturing the data, newer devices use wireless technology to transmit the data to a remote location, meaning the thieves don't have to return to the gas pump, making them less likely to be caught.
The FBI says some of the newer skimmers will even text the stolen data to the thieves.
Cheap and extremely common
Sparkfun, an electronics component company, said it was recently contacted by law enforcement to retrieve data from some newly discovered skimmers. These particular skimmers, it said, broadcast over bluetooth as HC-05.
It describes the bluetooth module on the skimmers as cheap and extremely common. It concludes that the electronic components make gas pump skimmers themselves cheap and increasingly common, becoming “more of a nuisance across North America.”
This nuisance is a good reason to always use a credit card–never a debit card–at gas pumps. If your credit card data is stolen, you can limit your liability to $50 by immediately contacting the card issuer.
If your debit card data is stolen, the thief could clean out your bank account. You may get your money back, with limited loss, if you notify the bank immediately. But if your account has no money for several days, you could miss important obligations like rent or bills and potentially overdraft on automatic debits.
With AAA predicting record holiday travel over the Thanksgiving period, the safest course of action is to pay inside when you stop for gas wherever possible.