PhotoFear of having credit card information stolen by a gas pump “skimmer” has forced many consumers to change the way they pay for gasoline.

A survey by CompareCards found 43 percent of consumers have altered their gas-purchasing habits to avoid being ripped off.

For the last three decades consumers have been able to swipe their credit or debit cards at the pump to pay for a gasoline purchase. Before that, everyone went inside and handed either cash or their payment card to a human being.

But it didn't take clever thieves long to figure out how to exploit this trend. They devised devices that fit over the top of the gas pumps' card readers to intercept the credit card information.

With the information, the thieve could sell a copy of the card or make online purchases. The victim might not know for weeks.

Growing number of victims

The CompareCards survey found that 15 percent of consumers who had purchased gas in the last month had been the victim of a skimming fraud. Because of that, 20 percent of these consumers say they now go inside the gas station to pay for their fuel.

Most retail locations now accept chip cards, which are more secure. These cards are inserted instead of swiped. Gas pumps, however, still read the card data off the magnetic strip on the back of the card.

“One huge driver of this phenomenon is the fact that gas station pumps don’t need to be converted to accept EMV cards until October 2020,” said Matt Schulz, credit card analyst for CompareCards. “That makes those pumps low-hanging fruit for fraudsters.”

What to do

Consumers can protect themselves by taking a number of steps, short of paying inside. Using the same local gas station for every fill-up helps, since you become familiar with what the card reader in the gas pump looks like. Any change or alteration should set off alarm bells.

It's also advisable to pay at the pump with a credit card rather than a debit card. If credit card information is stolen, liability can be limited to $50. A debit card, however, gives a thief access to your bank account.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says skimmers are now harder to detect because technology improvements have made them smaller. The agency says some stations now place a security seal over the crack where the card reader joins with the rest of the pump.

The placement of seals is voluntary – some stations do it and some don't. But the FTC says if you see that intact seal when you fill up you have a better chance of keeping your payment card information secure.


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