Gas Pump Card Skimmers and How to Avoid Them

Technology is essentially a process of making tasks easier for ourselves. The electric refrigerator was a lot easier to deal with than the icebox, which was a lot simpler than having to can, cure or smoke nearly every single scrap of food you weren’t going to eat in the next day or two. As far as ease-of-use goes, the telephone beat the telegraph by a long shot, and transporting your music collection became a whole lot easier when the iPod took over the world in 2001.

The problem is that technology also makes things easier for criminals, too.

There was a time when a thief who wanted to install a skimmer on a gas pump card reader had to place the device, which tended to look “wrong” in the first place, over the dispenser’s actual card reader, hide out and hope nobody noticed it, then return to the scene of the crime to retrieve the device and the data contained therein.

But now, if they’re high-tech, thieves can attach the skimmer (which is a lot smaller and easier to conceal) and then use Bluetooth to obtain the data in real-time from a few hundred feet away, and no need to return to the pump. If they’re really high-tech, they can install a skimmer than uses SMS technology to send the data as a text message to anywhere in the world. The crook placing the device can just be a hired contractor.

At some point, it gets frustrating. What can I tell you to help you avoid getting your card data skimmed at a gas pump? The original deadline to equip dispensers with chip card readers was pushed back from 2017 to 2020, so we’ve got at least three more years of magnetic stripe readers being the norm, and that’s assuming they don’t find a way to push back the deadline yet again, which they almost certainly will.

I could tell you to inspect the pump for anything that seems out-of-place, or to use the pumps nearest the station, since the installer’s main goal is generally to not be seen. Never run your debit card as “debit” (i.e., never enter your PIN). Use only well-lit, well-maintained dispensers. Et cetera. But those are stopgap measures at best.

No, the only thing I can tell you is this: forget about pay-at-the-pump. Pretend it never existed. Go inside the station to pay for your gas. It involves more walking. It takes longer. It’s more of a pain, less convenient. They’ve got lots of tempting, terrible-for-you food in there. But the risks of having your card skimmed are much lower. Shop around to see which stations have a chip-enabled terminal inside, and only buy from those stations. It’s really the best option at this point.

Thank the scammers

Remember the good old days when a cashier’s check was beyond repute?

If somebody paid you with one of these documents, you could take it to your bank or credit union, present it to a teller, and walk away with cash in your pocket. It usually didn’t even matter how large the check was.

Not anymore. At an increasing number of financial institutions, holds are placed on cashier’s checks now, even the ones for moderate amounts. Do you find that annoying or inconvenient?

Thank a con artist. Because of rampant lottery scams, secret shopper scams and advance fee fraud (not to mention people just creating their own fake cashier’s checks and taking them to the bank), many financial institutions no longer treat these items as cash. You’ll have to wait for that check to be verified as legitimate—sometimes five or more days, and possibly even longer for large amounts.

How about ATM deposits?

ATMs were the banking of the future, remember? You could make all your deposits and withdrawals electronically. It didn’t matter if the lobby was open, it didn’t matter if it was the middle of the night; you could do your banking on your time, at your convenience. It was so convenient and futuristic that if you made your deposits at the ATM, you’d get instant availability!

Watch for that to start disappearing, too. We recently stopped taking ATM deposits altogether because of fraud losses. Look for more financial institutions to follow suit, or to at least drastically modify how ATM deposits are handled.

Sure, I’d argue that making ATM deposits available same day was folly on the part of the financial services industry from the get-go, but a lot of people (who weren’t depositing empty envelopes and fraudulent checks) liked this service. It will disappear soon enough. If you find that inconvenient, thank a scammer.

How about that neighborhood bank or credit union you’ve been going to for 20 years? They know you, and they know whom you work for. Your payroll check has come from the same company that whole time (it still looks exactly the same, for that matter). All of a sudden, they tell you there will be a hold on your check.

Why? Because of skyrocketing fraud losses, watch for financial institutions to start treating every customer/member as a stranger, and treating every check like it’s the first time they’ve seen one. Sure, you can get mad and close your account, but you’ll get the same treatment at the place down the street.

Thank a crook for all these inconveniences. They’re the ones who are making it all possible.

I’m sure the financial industry will find a way to restore some services (electronic checks and direct deposit will play a major role). Right now, though, we’re all playing catch-up with the scammers. I always tell you to “stay vigilant,” but that goes for us, too: we have to adapt to the changes, or risk going gentle into that not-so-good night.

How to avoid ATM skimming.

It looks like ATM skimming is increasing. I’m going to venture a guess: this means the technology used in these crimes has finally become cheap and user-friendly enough that any jerk can set it up. C’est dommage.

What is ATM skimming? For those who might not already know, it essentially involves a card-reading device placed over the real card slot on an ATM. This device captures account information from the card. Meanwhile, the victim’s PIN is captured, either with a small camera hidden on the machine or with a keypad overlay that can be removed later. The criminal creates new cards using blank plastic card stock (even unactivated gift cards), which are then used to drain victims’ accounts. All of these devices can blend in extremely well with the real ATM hardware, and can be hard to detect.

So, how do you avoid ATM skimming?

First, only use ATMs in well-lit areas, and that have security cameras installed. The machine outside a financial institution with a camera and a bank of floodlights is going to be a lot harder to retrofit than the one at the corner of a poorly lit parking lot on the crummy side of town. Actually, I don’t use the stand-alone machines regardless of location, since the fees tend to be high.

Second, pay attention. Get off the cell phone, while you’re at it. Yes, I know—that’s why you didn’t go through the drive-up lane, right? You were tired of getting the stink-eye from the teller because you were on the phone during your transactions? Well, put the phone down when you’re at the ATM, too. For one thing, you need to be alert for suspicious devices. For another, it’s always a good idea to be alert to your surroundings any time you’re handling a wad of cash in public (for your physical safety). You can’t do either with a cell phone on your ear.

Before you even take out your card, check the machine and everything around it. Look for parts that seem crooked, or decals that are partially covered. Here’s a photo of an ATM with a skimming device attached:



See the red-and-white sticker to the right of the card slot? Notice how the top half of it is covered by the reader. Here’s why:



It was partially covered by a skimmer.

This is just one possible sign of skimming. A reader that’s a different color than the rest of the machine can also be a clue. However, some of these devices are small enough to only cover the slot itself. A lot of machines have lights around the slot; if these are not visible, it could mean a device has been attached. Basically, if something doesn’t seem right, find a different machine.

Also check out any brochure racks or other items on or near the ATM. Cameras can be hidden just about anywhere these days. As an extra precaution, when you’re entering your PIN, cover your hand with your other hand.

Actually, I usually just manhandle the machine a little before I insert a card. I’ll give the card slot a little tug to make sure there isn’t any “bonus hardware.” I’m not saying I attempt to rip the reader out of the machine like King Kong or somebody; I just give it a little push to make sure it’s part of the machine. These devices are usually held loosely in place with glue or tape, as the thief must remove them later. I also give the keypad a once-over. If it sticks out too far or looks strange, it could be a warning sign.

However, if you do this, and a skimmer detaches itself from the machine, either contact the financial institution (if it’s nearby) or the police. Whatever you do, don’t just throw it away or keep it. That would tend to make it look like you’re the one running the scheme.

There are several videos on the subject. This one is a news story from a few years ago. At around 0:48, you can actually see how tiny the skimmer itself is. The one in the photos above looks clunky by comparison.


Skimming devices have also shown up on gas pumps as well as ATMs. I actually avoid these altogether by using cash for fuel purchases—I’m old-school that way.

However, if you are going to use your debit or credit card for gas, make sure to look before you swipe. Gas pumps are an easy place to stick a skimmer, because card readers in this case vary from station to station, and (at least around here) most of them look like they’re about to fall apart anyway. It’s hard to tell what’s legit and what isn’t.

So, the main rule at the pump is to pay attention. Don’t get swept up in the convenience of pay-at-the-pump abilities and forget to check. And get off that phone. Those things make gas fumes explode. Or maybe they don’t.