Every day in the U.S., about 39 million motorists gas up their cars. This means that every day, about 39 million motorists could be victims of a fraud scheme called “skimming.”
Gas pumps are among the top targets for skimming devices. As explained by the national association representing convenience stores — where the bulk of gas purchases take place — skimming happens when a device that reads a credit card or debit card is installed inside or outside a gas pump. This technology enables a crook to nab your credit or debit card data, which then can be used to create counterfeit credit and debit cards.
The skimming problem is rampant across the country, leading to millions of dollars in financial losses annually. In Florida alone, investigators expect to find skimmers this year at about 1,000 gas pumps.
Law enforcement agencies are vigilant about fighting the spread of skimmers at gas pumps. But they acknowledge that the crooks behind them are tough to catch and are growing more sophisticated.
The Skimmer Scanner app offers some protection
You can become more sophisticated in helping crack down on gas-pump skimmers by simply installing a free app on your smartphone. The Skimmer Scanner app — designed for Android devices and available for download from the Google Play store (but not Apple’s app marketplace) — relies on your phone’s Bluetooth signal to detect skimming devices at gas pumps.
Nick Poole, who developed Skimmer Scanner, explained to Denver TV station KDVR (Fox 31) how the app works:
“You drive up to the gas pump. Before you put your card in, you open up the app on your phone and it has a button that says ‘scan’. Click ‘scan,’ and it will start scanning and give you a message a few seconds later about whether it’s safe to use your card.”
App warns about potential skimming
If a skimmer is detected via the app, it could mean your credit card or debit card information is being transmitted to a thief, according to St. Louis TV station KTVI (Fox 2). An alert will appear on the screen of your phone when the app suspects a skimming device has been found.
In that situation, don’t use the pump and do call the police. SparkFun, the tech company that invented the app, also recommends notifying a gas station employer and not trying to remove the skimmer on your own.
Sorry, it’s not foolproof
The Skimmer Scanner app is “not a foolproof thing, but it’s something that might help protect you from an illegal device that was placed in that gas pump,” Michael Laws, the police chief in Overland, Missouri, told KTVI.
Indeed, SparkFun says that if the app fails to detect a wireless skimmer at a gas pump, you’re not necessarily in the clear. There still could be a skimmer lurking inside or outside the pump.
“There’s always a risk to sticking your card in a strange machine,” SparkFun warns.
Getting clued in to skimming
However, the app can be effective. In fact, it’s most effective if you hold your phone close to the gas pump as the app is doing its thing.
“The effective range of this app varies by phone and by skimmer,” according to SparkFun.
Without the app, a skimmer at a gas pump can be “nearly impossible to detect” with your own eyes, Forbes.com says.
“That’s because criminals will often open a pump with a master key and install the skimmer inside the pump,” according to Forbes.com. “There often aren’t any clues on the outside that would clue you in to the skimmer’s presence … except the Bluetooth signal that criminals use to stealthily retrieve stolen card data.”
Have you been a victim of skimming? Here are some steps to take after a data breach.