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.

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.

Ten reasons you should stay at home and shop online this Friday.

Well, the day after Thanksgiving is fast approaching, at least here in the states.

Now, I’ve managed to weasel my way out of shopping for anything on this day for the past several years, and this year will be no different. I’m a fan of a low-key sort of Christmas, where the main event is having everybody get together, rather than the emphasis on loot.

However, not everybody shares my flip attitude towards tradition, so I know a lot of you are planning to head out and join the fray. I’d like to encourage you to consider staying at home and shopping online this Friday, though, for the following ten reasons:

  1. Online retailers, especially the major companies, have unbelievable security these days. It is safer than ever to shop online. In fact, it’s probably safer than shopping in person.
  2. When shopping with your credit or debit card, you’re not liable for any fraudulent charges (unless your contract is set up really weird, which might occur but should be very rare).
  3. Shoulder surfers: It’s impossible for someone to sidle up and take a photo of your credit card if you’re not in the store to begin with.
  4. Skimming: you can’t be tricked into sliding your card through a skimming device if you’re not even in the vicinity of an ATM or other card-reading machine.
  5. Theft: it’s also exceedingly difficult for someone to steal (or “find”) your wallet if you’re at home.
  6. Scammers: I know you would never be tempted to buy a TV from some dude in a gas station parking lot at night, but you’ll never even see him if you shop online from established retailers (he might be lurking about on Craigslist, though, I guess).
  7. A lot of Black Friday sales are bait-and-switch schemes. Stores use the frantic nature of the day to unload items that are…almost what you were looking for, but not quite. Online, it’s easy to closely check an item (without some nutjob trying to tear it out of your hands).
  8. Also, a lot of stores will advertise an item at a wildly discounted price, with fine print that states they have a “minimum of four per store.” You realize that means there are only four per store, right? This generally doesn’t happen online.
  9. You’ll save money just by not driving your car around all day, forlornly circling parking lots in search of something, anything, that looks like a space your car might fit into.
  10. You’ll spend less money, because you won’t get caught up in the insane “get yours before somebody else gets it” mentality the stores depend on.