Column: Protect yourself from identity thieves at gas stations

By Pam Pommer

Guest Columnist


On March 18, I gathered at Bloomington Civic Plaza for the 2017 Neighborhood Watch Block Captains Workshop.

Getting up early on a Saturday was not my first choice. But I want to be more involved in our neighborhood watch program, and the other topics of the day sounded interesting.

Our first session was an eye-opener. Most of us know that criminals are able to steal our credit card information, especially at gas pumps, but don’t really understand how they capture the information. The speaker for that segment was Special Agent Landen Beard, who works for the Commerce Fraud Bureau of the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Skimming first appeared in Minnesota around 2007, but reports of stolen data have increased in recent months, including a January incident at Bobby and Steve’s Auto World on France Avenue in Bloomington, which resulted in three men being arrested.

Thieves are stealing our information by using both “overlays” and “inline” skimmers. Overlays are easier to spot because they fit over the card reader slots of an ATM or gas pump. If the slot looks more bulky than usual or looks different from the slots at other pumps, Beard urged us to tell the station attendant inside and use a different pump — or pay inside, preferably with cash.

If you insert your credit card in a machine with a skimmer, your name and credit card number will be captured by the device. With the overlays, thieves have to return to the pump and remove the skimmer.

Unfortunately, inline skimmers are harder to detect than the overlays because they are placed inside gas pumps. Bluetooth-enabled devices allow crooks to download the stolen information to their laptops in the security of their vehicles.

But how do those devices get inside the machines? Unbeknownst to most of us law-abiding citizens, most gas pumps have universal locking systems and those keys are widely available for purchase.

Ultimately, gas stations need to shift to site-specific locking systems at each pump. Customers might be able to speed that along by asking the gas station if they use site-specific locks and make them feel a bit guilty if they don’t. But things won’t change overnight.

In the meantime, police departments are urging station owners to use security tape on their pumps so they can know if the pump has been tampered with. The tape has a unique number on it, which is logged by station owners and checked at least once a day. In addition, the tape will read “void” if someone has tried to open the pump to install a skimmer.

This voluntary program, called “SkimStop,” is being rolled out in Bloomington. The daily logs inside the stations can be monitored by the police to make sure that stations who participate and display the SkimStop signs are indeed complying with the program.

But don’t let these yellow signs lull you into complacency. Now, more than ever, we need to carefully monitor all of our accounts. I pay everything with credit cards and keep receipts for each and every transaction. Then I match them all up, line for line, with my credit card statements. Apparently, I’m in the minority. But even if the charge on your statement is small, if it isn’t yours, it means that your card information has been stolen. Bottom line, if you aren’t paying in cash, especially at gas pumps, you need to be vigilant.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce offers these tips to consumers:

Look before you swipe: Jiggle the card reader and check the keypad. Inspect the pump for signs of forced entry, including broken security stickers, tool marks or scratches that might indicate tampering.

Any pump could contain a skimmer: Pumps at the outer edges of a station are the easiest places to install skimmers without being seen by the attendant. But pumps close to the station get the heaviest traffic, and criminals might take a risk to get a bigger payoff.

See something, say something: If you notice any irregularities, especially someone who is not a station employee or an inspector who is opening up a pump, alert a station attendant.

Pay inside with cash or a card: If you use a debit card, never type in your PIN at the pump. Using your credit card will limit your liability to $50, while stolen debit card information can give the thief direct access to your bank account.

Monitor your bank and credit card accounts: Review your statements and immediately report irregularities to your financial institution or credit card company. There is a limited time period to report fraud to avoid liability for unauthorized charges.


Pam Pommer, a graduate of Lincoln Senior High School, works and lives in Bloomington, where she enjoys gardening and spending time with her shelties. She can be contacted at [email protected]