Fuel theft using fraudulent credit cards has become widespread with the development of skimmers that steal account information at gas station pumps. Here’s a look at how they work, what authorities are doing to combat them and what consumers can do to protect themselves.


SKIMMERS

Skimmers are electronic credit card readers that thieves insert inside fuel pumps. Most can’t be seen from the outside, and the technology has become more sophisticated. They’re smaller and can capture the zip codes and personal identification numbers consumers punch in as well as their account information. Some even transmit stolen data wirelessly, so thieves don’t risk getting caught retrieving the devices. Thieves then create clones of the consumers’ cards. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates that on average, each skimmer results in 100 counterfeit cards, each of which are used to make $1,000 in fraudulent purchases. In other words, a single skimmer typically leads to $100,000 in theft.


RESPONSES

Nearly every state has a law banning the use of skimmers to fraudulently obtain credit card information. Some states are increasing penalties for their use or possession. A 2016 Florida law made possessing 50 or more counterfeit cards a first1degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison, and requires stations to install security devices on pumps. These could include pressure-sensitive tape that alerts stations when a pump has been opened, or devices that shut down pumps if they are opened or tampered with.


CONSUMERS

Paying in cash is the most effective defense against skimmers, according to The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Other tips include:

— Use a credit card, not a debit card, since credit cards have better fraud protection, and the money is not deducted immediately from an account.

— If using a debit card at a pump, choose to run it as a credit card rather than punch in a PIN number.

— Check to make sure the gas pump dispenser cabinet is closed and shows no signs of tampering.

— Choose the pump closest to the station’s clerk. Thieves often place skimmers at pumps farther away from the store.

— Monitor bank and card accounts regularly to spot any unauthorized charges.