August 9, 2010

Arizona drivers warned about gas-pump credit-card scam

The Arizona Department of Weights and Measures is warning consumers to take extra precautions to protect their identities because of an increase in the use of illicit credit-card readers at gas pumps.

Police departments around the state have reported at least 30 cases related to "skimmers" - illegal reading devices attached to legitimate credit-card readers - found at gas stations in the past six months, said Shawn Marquez, director of compliance programs for the state agency.

Skimmers have been reported in Maricopa, La Paz and Mohave counties, and in the cities of Phoenix, Lake Havasu City, Bullhead City, Kingman, Glendale and Surprise, the agency said.

According to police departments in the counties that reported skimmer activity, cases have cropped up sporadically over the past year, but not in a concentrated area. It appears the scammers moved in and out of each area quickly.

The tiny devices are surreptitiously installed into or onto gas pumps, copying the electronic data in the magnetic strip of credit or debit cards as people swipe them at the pump. The information can then be used to counterfeit credit or debit cards. Skimmers also are commonly planted in ATMs, authorities said.

The devices are not planted by the business owners, but by scammers adept at placing them at key locations.

Last month, Gov. Jan Brewer directed the Department of Weights and Measures to increase training and inspection efforts to search for skimmers.

Over the next few weeks, state inspectors will increase the number of inspections on gas pumps, hold training seminars for its officers on technology used to detect skimmers and work with professionals in the petroleum industry to collaborate on detection and protective measures, Marquez said.

Because skimmers often are placed inside the pumps, it is difficult for consumers to detect them, Marquez said. But he urged people to report any suspicious devices on or around any gas pump.

Skimmers are about 2 inches long, with electrical wires attached.

The problem is not restricted to gas pumps. Jeno Erdelyi, 46, a Californian working in the restaurant business, said skimmers are common enough that even waiters sometimes hide the devices in their wallets or belts to secretly swipe cards.

Erdelyi, who was recently visiting Phoenix, said he withdraws cash to buy gas. He uses oil-company credit cards only when he travels for work.

Gouinda Das, 36, a Phoenix Shell gas-station attendant, said most patrons use cards to purchase their gas. Only about 30 to 40 customers a day pay with cash, usually when they buy other items at the convenience store, he said.

Miljan Rakic, 21, who was gassing up recently at a Phoenix station, said he routinely checks his online statements and uses credit cards with fraud-protection guarantees to avoid identity theft.

Rakic, a former credit-company employee, said he has encountered customers whose identities were stolen after running their cards through skimmers attached to gas-pump card readers. The devices resembled small lock boxes, he said, so patrons assumed the skimmers were a part of the card reader.

Like Rakic, consumers should regularly monitor their credit- and debit-card statements and check their credit scores, said Steven Katz, senior director of corporate communications at TransUnion, a national credit company.

Before draining an account, identity thieves may charge a few small transactions to see if card owners are monitoring their accounts, said Jennifer Leuer, general manager of ProtectMyID, an identity-protection service with Experian.

Any discrepancies in bank statements should be reported immediately to the bank, police and credit bureaus, because the amount card owners are liable for may increase the longer they wait to report fraud, Leuer said.

Consumer liability is limited to $50 for credit cards once the card is reported lost or stolen. But for debit cards, the liability fee is dependent on the number of days consumers wait to report it. According to the Electronic Fund Transfer Act, consumers could be responsible for all the money lost in their accounts if they wait longer than 60 days from the date the bank statement is mailed.

by Michelle Ye Hee Lee The Arizona Republic Aug. 1, 2010 08:10 PM

Arizona drivers warned about gas-pump credit-card scam

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