You can’t be too careful these days, it seems. While identify theft is commonly considered to be the realm of thieves obtaining sensitive information by hacking computers or sifting through personal trash, the fact is that you can have your identity, and your finances, hijacked by crooks at the gas pump as well.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as many as nine million Americans have their identity stolen every year. While thieves bent on securing your identity use a variety of tactics, one that can affect you at the pump involves skimming.
Bank Info Security recently reported that pay-at-the-pump skimming has reached “epidemic” proportions, especially in Texas, Florida, California and other states. The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) says that while skimming accounts for relatively few compromises of card purchases at the fuel pump, the issue of master keys that allow access to pump enclosures is an “industry problem.”
Skimming usually involves the thief attaching a piece that looks like an extension to the card insertion slot at the gas pump. Other skimmers include a magnetic device, called a card cleaner, which collects your sensitive data. While card cleaners have been around for a while, the latest iteration is now smaller, more sensitive and harder to detect than before.
The NACS advises retailers to use the WeCare tamper-evident label that can help them identify potential security breaches if skimming devices are inserted in fuel dispensers. The security labels are to be used on fuel dispensers near the credit/debit area. If the label is lifted by thieves to insert a skimmer, a “void” message appears on the label and provides a visual alert to gas station employees so that additional action can be taken.
As a consumer, here are some of the things you can do to avoid having your identity and your finances purloined at the pump.
Look for the WeCare security label. The WeCare security label can help assure you that your data is secure, as well as to discourage crooks who may be targeting the gas station pumps.
Pay for gas inside. Sure, it’s a little less convenient and you may not be inclined to take the few extra steps before and after filling up the family car with fuel. But you’re much less likely to be ripped off by thieves if you pay inside the station instead of swiping your credit or ATM card at the pump. If you’re in an unfamiliar area, it’s much wiser to use this payment process than to trust that the pump is secure and free of skimmers thieves have placed there.
Use a pump closest to the cashier. Another suggestion is to park at the pump closest to the cashier, where you and your vehicle are in full view of the attendant. These high-visibility pumps are perhaps a little less likely to have been infiltrated by crooks attempting to steal your identity.
Watch out for anything suspicious. If possible, go to the same gas station you always use, or frequently use. Become familiar with how the pumps operate as well as what the card slots look like, and be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Some identity theft protection experts recommend running your little finger over the card insertion area. That way, you may be able to detect if a card cleaner is there. It’s typically the size of a matchbox. If you think anything is off, let the gas station attendant know immediately.
Pay with cash. Thieves can’t skim your identity if you pay with cash. Obviously, this isn’t always practical, especially if you need to fill up a big SUV, since you may not carry that much cash with you. Again, if you’re in an unfamiliar area, you might want to either pay inside with your credit or debit card, as previously recommended, or just buy enough gas with cash until you get to a more familiar gas station in your neighborhood.