Advances in skimming technology are gassing customers at the pumps


Like many drivers, you most likely fill your gas tank at least once a week. But did you know that gassing up could be putting your identity and money at risk?

Thieves are using new, high-tech tools to steal your data. There are, however, ways you can fight back, including with your smart phone.

Our investigation revealed hundreds of credit and debit cards have been cloned in the City of Charleston alone. Earlier this month, two people were arrested in connection to skimming devices all along Interstate 95.

Sergeant Trevor Shelor with the Charleston Police Department says the old way of credit card skimming is already a thing of the past.

“In the old days, crooks would fit a skimming device in the plastic of ATM machine or card reader. But that was expensive and puts the criminal at risk twice: once when they plant the device and another when they have to retrieve the data,” Shelor said.

Charleston is a target for identity thieves, thanks to its proximity to the water and major thoroughfares.

“It happens everywhere, Shelor said. “And we are on a corridor -- U.S. 17 and the interstate -- that out of state criminals can travel up and down the coast a week at a time."

Thieves are increasingly targeting gas stations. In fact, three skimming devices have been uncovered inside Charleston area gas pumps in just the past year.

In June, investigators were called to the BP station on Calhoun street and Rutledge Avenue. Back in January, Charleston police found skimmers at two different gas stations in a single week. The first on Orange Grove Road in West Ashley.

We spoke with the manager of that Exxon gas station, shortly after the device was found on pump number seven.

Robert Suggs called the police as soon as the device was discovered. He said he opened the machine after customers complained the pump wasn’t working and their cards were being declined. Suggs apologized to his customers and now says he checks the pumps daily offering this advice for other stations.

Gas Skimmers have also been found in North Charleston. Most recently at the Circle K at 8700 Rivers Avenue near Otranto Road.

Charleston Police Detective James Jackson says thieves can rig those pumps in a matter of moments. Trained criminals can implant the devices in 10 seconds or less.

"Somehow they are getting the keys to gas pumps. They open the door. They plug these jumper wires in there," Shelor says. "It has a computer memory chip in it, so as people use their cards throughout the day it's storing their data."

Once thieves get that number, your life savings could be gone within a matter of minutes.

Crime prevention officers say staying vigilant at gas stations starts as soon as you pull up to the pump.

"Most of the gas stations are now inspecting their pumps every few days," Shelor said. "And they place a piece of tape on it that if someone was to come and open the front of it to place one of these devices in it, it would break the tape.”

Another good tip to make sure you don’t get your data skimmed: Make sure you pay with the right plastic.

"Use a credit card instead of a debit card to protect your real money," Shelor recommends. "Because if your real money disappears today, even if the bank makes good, it 3-5 days from now. Every check you have floating out there -- to the day care, to the pizza place, the gas bill -- all your checks keep bouncing and it's a big headache. At least your credit card you can challenge things.”

The biggest challenge for investigators, however, is keeping up with an ever-evolving technology.

“They figured out attaching a bluetooth to it, so they can simply drive up to the pump, scan it, copy all the information, drive away and the whole device is disposable,” Shelor said.

But you can do some detective work of your own. Federal authorities say, next time you're at the pump, simply grab your cell phone, go into your settings, scan for Bluetooth devices. It could uncover one of those secret skimmers.

"If you tell your phone to scan for a Bluetooth connection and you see a very long series of numbers as one of the Bluetooth contacts that it has found, that's a good place to avoid,” Shelor said.

Charleston police recommend that while it's a neat technique, it isn't fool proof. Bottom line, authorities say, if something doesn’t look or feel right at a gas pump, move on, find another station and contact police.

"If we can discover that device, then that may potentially save people thousands of dollars," Shelor said.

Detectives recommend that you monitor your bank statements, and if you see anyone at a gas pump with a tool in their hands who is not wearing a regulation uniform, to contact 911.

As for who is planting the devices -- that is more difficult to track. It's sometimes difficult for those identity theft victims to trace back where their data was stolen.

Shelor says these thieves could be anyone from teenagers learning how to skim cards on the internet, to organized crime rings from different states or even different nations buying and selling personal information and banking data.

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