We thought it would be good to leave electronics behind and just enjoy our vacation on Ocean Reef last weekend. Which means we didn't check our email until we got home. When we did ...
We had been skimmed!
There was an email from the bank alerting us to suspicious activity on a debit card, which began just one hour after we left the house. We hadn't read the email. Debit card and PIN number were stolen and the account drained of $3200.
It's a horrible feeling.
By studying the account activity we figured out the information was stolen at a gas station in Savannah, then first used in Charleston by thieves to finance a Memorial Day weekend in Las Vegas.
We were stunned. There had been no one suspicious lurking around, peering over our shoulder at the pump. How could someone get the PIN number?
* * * * *
CreditCard.com calls 2016 "The Year of the Skimmer". It's happening everywhere, in small towns and big cities. Maybe we are the only ones unaware of this but maybe not. I'll pass along what we've learned. Maybe it will save someone else from this crime.
Thieves work in pairs, one to distract the gas station attendant, the other to open the front of the pump, and in seconds install a small device on the card reader inside the pump that relays the credit card number back to them wirelessly. They also stick a tiny camera on the pump over the PIN pad to get the number as you punch it in. They are fast and on their way before the attendant knows anything happened.
|Craig VanBuren, director of the Consumer Protection Section at Michigan’s Department of Agriculture, shows how the skimmer devices are placed inside a gas pump. NBC News|
Crooks can buy a skimmer on eBay for less than $100 and it's small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. They also target ATM machines and rig them with similar devices.
The advice I've gathered:
- How can you know if a skimmer has been added to a gas pump? Some stations are putting a sticker across the seal on the door on the front of the pump. It's a bright color and easy to see if it has been tampered with or torn and the pump opened. If anything looks suspicious on the front of the pump, don't use it. (We haven't seen a single one of these stickers since, however, so it doesn't seem they are in widespread use yet.)
- Use the pumps nearest the attendant in the station. Crooks target the pumps farthest away.
- Pay inside. Your chances are better that the cashier is not a crook.
- Use a credit card, not a debit card. This limits the amount of info the thieves can get, plus it's easier to get your money back than with a debit card. Also, not all banks offer debit card protection.
- Set up your credit or debit card account for alerts by text message which typically will be noticed before an email.
- If it happens to you, alert the gas station and the police of the town where you think it happened. They can install a GPS tracker on the thieves' device in the pump and possibly catch them.
Fortunately for us, the card we used was protected and the money will be returned to our account and the card replaced.
Meanwhile, though, we are still waiting for the new card a week later and have no cash or access to our account.