How to protect your money from gas pump scams that steal your debit card info

Before you swipe your debit or credit card at the pump, here are three things to know about skimmers and safeguarding your wallet.

1. Criminals get creative

Skimmers come in different shapes and sizes and can be installed on or inside pumps at any gas station.

“I wouldn’t say there’s one recipe for them,” said Sgt. Derek Nelson, a computer crimes digital evidence analyst with the Sheriff’s Office. “(Criminals) can build them from scratch for about $20.”

Nelson said devices installed inside pumps typically stay in use longer. And, depending on their technology, some have the ability to wirelessly transmit stolen data to the device’s owner.

Some externals skimmers are designed to fit over the slotted card reader where you swipe.

Scammers usually have to come back and retrieve those types of skimmers, Nelson said.

External devices might be used for just hours in one location.

2. Give the pump a look — and a tug

Before you swipe your card, give the card reader a tug, Nelson said.

Readers are sturdy, he said, and shouldn’t come off. If they do, they’re likely skimmers. If you find one, notify the business and call the appropriate local police agency.

Nelson also suggested looking carefully at the inspection sticker on the pump. The sticker is often placed near eye level on the service access panel that covers the pump’s insides. If the sticker is torn, sliced or missing, let a station attendant know.

As for the pump itself, if you see pry marks near the card reader, the service panel or the key hole, inform the station and use a different pump.

An April 2016 article in PC Magazine suggests wiggling your card when you insert it into a reader to foil skimmers.

Consumer Reports wrote in 2013 that thieves prize debit card and PIN numbers most. So, don’t ever enter your PIN at the pump, the publication said. Use cash, or run your debit card as a credit card.

Pump keypads can also be set up to steal financial information.

Cameras can be installed nearby or on pumps to record your PIN entry.

Skimmers can also be found in ATMs, stores and in the self-checkout line.

Former Washington Post reporter and cyber security writer Brian Kreb’s blog — Krebs on Security — has a whole series of stories — with pictures — about skimmers.

3. Scammers beware

Skimmer scams sometimes cross county and state lines, and when they do, law enforcement agencies collaborate.

Sometimes the U.S. Secret Service gets involved.

A month ago, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that two men were being charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for their alleged involvement in a multi-state, gas-station-skimming scheme discovered by local agencies and the Secret Service.

The scheme involved the pair renting cars and traveling between Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia, where they installed skimming devices along their route. They used stolen financial information to “reactivate credit, debit, or gift cards, and make unauthorized cash withdrawals and purchases at several places around the southeast,” according to the Justice Department.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston