Before the advent of the technology age, thieves would steal gas by siphoning it from unattended cars. Now, there’s a credit card scam that’s been sweeping across the nation for a few years that very well could get you caught up. This lick involves criminal gangs infiltrating gas stations (covertly or by greasing an attendant) and embedding credit card skimming devices in the pumps, which read the PIN pad to obtain credit card data.
Some skimmers have the ability to transmit the data acquired through Bluetooth technology. This requires the thieves to drive up to the tank and collect data on a laptop as they fill their own tanks normally. Other skimmers can actually send the credit card info via SMS or text messages, meaning no one has to ride up to the pump. They just need to be in a spot with mobile phone service (i.e. anywhere in the world).
The credit card info is used to make card clones, which are used to get hundreds of gallons of gas from multiple gas stations. The crooks who plant the credit card skimmers and the organizations that get the gas and resell it are usually two different entities. Agent Steve Scarince, a US Secret Service agent who has been fighting the gas lick in Los Angeles since 2009 states:
“Generally the way it works is the skimmer will sell the cards to a fuel theft cell or ring. The head of the ring or the number two guy will go purchase the credit cards and bring them back to the drivers. More often than not, the drivers don’t know a whole lot about the business. They just show up for work, the boss hands them 25 cards and says, ‘Make the most of it, and bring me back the cards that don’t work.’ And the leader of the ring will go back to the card skimmer and say, ‘Okay out of 100 of those you sold me, 50 of them didn’t work.’”
The stolen gas is pumped into hollowed out “vans and trucks crudely modified and retrofitted with huge metal and/or plastic ‘bladders’ capable of holding between 250 and 500 gallons of fuel.” After getting all the gas they can, the bladders carry the finessed petrol to a tanker truck, which can hold 4,000 to 5,000 gallons. Finally (if the trucks haven’t blown up due to a driver who needed to smoke a cigarette) the haul is taken to shady gas station owners (with whom deals have already been brokered) and the gas is sold at a discount for straight cash.
Some gangs (like Armenian organized crime groups in California and Nevada) are making $10 million per year off of this scam. This has caused credit card companies to step up their efforts in a number of ways, such as fuel spending limits and chip technology. Customers are advised to avoid any gas stations that are shady in appearance, and to use pumps closest to the gas attendants. Skimmers are more likely to be put in street side pumps.
Consumers should remember that they’re not liable for fraudulent charges on their credit or debit cards, but they still have to report the phony transactions. There is no substitute for keeping a close eye on your card statements. Also, use credit cards instead of debit cards at the pump; having your checking account emptied of cash while your bank sorts out the situation can be a huge hassle and create secondary problems (bounced checks, for instance).