The Skimmer Scam


Thieves have been using the latest technology to quickly install ever more undetectable credit and debit card skimmers at gas pumps, and even at the card reader inside the gas station. Parts are available cheaply on eBay, and the risks are low while payoffs are high. Installing skimmers on isolated Automated Teller Machines has always been popular with thieves, but now with newer technology that takes mere seconds to install, the greater exposure to detection from passersby at gas pumps over ATMs is not as much of a factor as before. A skimmer placed on a gas pump can offer a larger payoff than an ATM because of the generally higher amount of customer visits.

Diners Club Regular Japan 2016
Diners Club Regular Card with Integrated Circuit, issued in Japan, 2016;
own work by Hitomi

The new smart credit cards, which are the ones embedded with EMV (Europay MasterCard Visa) integrated circuit chips, are far less susceptible to skimming than cards with magnetic stripes only, but while the new cards are rolling out, businesses need to maintain backwards compatibility with magnetic stripe cards, and that makes the United States fertile territory for card skimmers. The United States has also been slower to implement EMV technology than other countries because of the huge cost of replacing all the card readers. It wasn’t until the impetus provided by the high profile Target stores identity theft case in 2013 that US businesses and card providers started moving earnestly toward the new standard. Liability shifts by providers, meaning whether they will reimburse losses by card holders to fraud and identity theft or shift the liability to businesses, are slated to begin for the old magnetic stripe cards in October 2017 generally, although some providers have implemented shifts for some types of card readers as early as October 2015, and other card readers won’t incur a liability shift until October 2020.


One to four years until full implementation of the new EMV-only card readers is an enormous window of opportunity for thieves armed with the latest skimmer technology. Gas station owners are trying the low cost stopgap of applying stickers to the pumps for evidence of tampering, but those can only help detect the installation of internal skimmers. Users of the gas pumps will have to be aware of anomalies at the scanner, the keypad, and the pump generally. They should also be aware that using a debit card is riskier than using a credit card, and to keep a close eye on their card statements for suspicious activity. The surest safeguard, of course, is to pay cash. It might be worthwhile for customers as well as business owners to remember the old saying immortalized by the humorist Jean Shepherd in the title of his 1966 novel In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.
– Techly