It's summertime and there may be only two words on your mind – road trip. As we hit the roads this summer for vacations we all make stops at the gas station and the ATM.
Unfortunately, so do identity thieves. They set up machines called skimmers on gas pumps and ATMs that are designed to fool you and benefit them. The devices read your debit or credit card and record the number, which the thief can collect by retrieving the skimmer or even remotely using a smartphone and a wireless Internet connection. The information will then be used to create a duplicate card bearing the number, but a different name.
The worst part is that if it's a debit card, the thief can empty your bank account before you are even aware there's a problem.
It recently happened to Dan Sutton, publisher of The Gazette. A couple of days after stopping at a local gas station for a fill-up, he checked his bank balance to find several hundred dollars missing. He had checked the day before and nothing was amiss.
"I called my bank first, and when I told (the bank representative) what had happened, she said. 'Oh no, not you too.' There had been a rash of this type of activity," he said. All of the fraudulent transactions took place in Philadelphia, Pa.
Sutton also called Tift County Sheriff Gene Scarbrough, and advised him about the theft and where he had purchased gas earlier that week. Sutton said he had never stopped for gas at that particular station before, and had not used his debit card anywhere else.
"The sheriff told me that Tifton is on a major interstate, and this type of thing is easily done," Sutton said. He added the bank returned his money four days later.
The bank representative also told him that when the customer loses money, the bank very often does as well.
"She said they will take care of their customers, but they lose out, too. She immediately cancelled my card when I called and issued me a new one. I was apprehensive about getting a new card, but I don't like writing checks. I'll have to be more vigilant about where and how I use my card," he said.
The best way to avoid this happening to you at the gas station is to simply pay in cash inside the store. If you must use a debit or credit card, it's best to also pay inside. If you need to pay at the pump, try to move the card reader or key pad. If it's loose, do not use it. It's very likely that it has been tampered with, or that a skimmer has been placed over the original card reader or key pad. You should also make the gas attendant or store clerk aware of the possible tampering.
If you use only your debit card to pay for gas, make sure you choose the credit option, so that you don't have to input your PIN number. You should also check your bank and credit card statements often to be sure there are no fraudulent entries.
Bank ATM machines are another place these thieves target. They will place skimmers on top of card readers and key pads, and even tiny cameras, hidden from view, near the key pad so that they get video of you inputting your PIN number.
When using an ATM, be sure to check the key pad and card reader. It's best to use the same ATM so that you will be familiar with it and will know immediately if something doesn't look right. Check to be sure nothing is loose or looks like it's been tampered with. Look for holes in nearby pamphlet holders where cameras could be hidden. When you input your PIN, cover the key pad with your other hand so that your number is obscured as you are punching it in.
As with the gas pump, if you notice something isn't right, go inside the bank and notify the branch manager.
You should also be leery of handing your card to anyone in a store, restaurant or even the drive-thru window of a fast food eatery. A store clerk or waiter can carry a small, handheld skimmer and once he or she has your card out of sight, it's easy to scan the card and record your number. If you use a credit card, you are not responsible for anything more than $50, but if you use a debit card, and the number is stolen, you could lose a lot of money.
In restaurants, pay with cash or use a credit card. Some restaurants are even going to small, handheld card scanners that can be used at the table, right in front of you. Don't be afraid to ask your server if you can accompany him or her when the card is scanned to pay for your meal if you are uncomfortable. The bottom line is this: Don't let your card out of your sight.
Many people also use debit and credit cards when shopping online. If you do shop online, use only secured sites. You can tell a site is secure if there is "https" in the URL and not just "http." Make sure you check out the site thoroughly before you input any personal or financial information. You should also review the sites return policy.
Credit and debit card skimming is a billion dollar industry. Cloned cards have been used to withdraw more than $1 billion in the past decade. So protect yourself and your cards. Pull on that card inserter and poke that key pad – and follow your instincts.
Editorial Note: This is Part 3 of a series on identity theft.
To contact editor Angye Morrison, call 382-4321.