NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – It’s the risk you take whenever you fill up your tank. Skimmers, hidden in gas pumps, can steal your bank information in seconds.
“Those crooks are smart,” said Frank Perry, a victim of fraud. Within days of swiping his card at a Valero in Arlington, mysterious charges appeared on the account he shared with his wife.
“All of a sudden, we started getting calls every time you turn around,” Perry said. “Fraud here, fraud there.”
Local police investigate the crimes along with the Texas Department of Agriculture. But the agency waging the biggest war on skimmers: the U.S. Secret Service. As part of its financial crimes task force, Secret Service agents regularly check gas pumps for skimmers. “It’s not just here in the Metroplex,” said William Noonan, the special agent in charge of the Secret Service field office in Dallas. “It’s all over North Texas.”
Recently, Secret Service agents spotted a trend: older gas pumps with membrane keypads are more likely to be hit by skimmers. Many of these machines can be easily unlocked by a universal key anyone can buy online.
“It’s people taking advantage of an opportunity,” said Noonan. “It’s people motivated by greed.”
The Secret Service works with state and local authorities, training officers on how to detect skimmers. Noonan says the work is paying off.
“We’ve seen examples where [skimmers have] gone undetected for weeks,” he said. “We’ve reduced that to days or hours in some cases.”
But the fight is far from over. On average, agents find one skimmer a week.
“Just last week our agents went out and within a day collected nine gas skimmers off of pumps in North Texas,” said Noonan, calling the find “very unusual.”
WATCH BEHIND THE LENS
There is no system that tracks when or where skimmers are found in DFW, so the I-Team created its own map after compiling a list of more than 200 unsolved skimmer cases.
Since 2017, the Department of Agriculture received less than a dozen reports of skimmers found in the DFW area. Compare that to the hundreds of cases reported to local police stations. The I-Team identified more than 200 local unsolved cases, according to numerous open records requests.
Among the findings:
-Multiple gas stations hit over and over again.
-One station on East Round Grove Road in Lewisville reported skimmers 13 times in two years. The owner says he got sick of it and installed all new pumps in the summer of 2018. He hasn’t seen a skimmer since.
-Buc-ee’s and QuikTrip had no reports of skimmers. A QT spokesman says the company’s “Pump Shield” technology sets off a silent alarm any time someone tries to get into the pump, which immediately shuts down the machine.
The I-Team also discovered that gas stations don’t always react to issues right away.
In a Farmers Branch police report, workers at a Chevron told police their alarm pumps had been going off for two days. At a 7-Eleven gas station in Dallas, the seals stayed broken for two weeks before getting reported, according to a police report.
The owner of the Farmers Branch station later told the I-Team they recently installed new locks that set off an alarm if the pump is opened. Workers are required to immediately investigate and call police if something looks out of place.
Making matters more difficult: once the skimmers are installed, criminals don’t have to retrieve them to get your information. They can park nearby and steal the data in real time using a Bluetooth signal or even a phone SIM card.
Detective Justin Trzepacz investigates skimming cases for Arlington Police’s economic crimes division. He says criminals often hit pumps located farthest away from the clerk or convenience store. It’s the same reason why 24/7 gas stations are less likely to be targeted.
“Obviously the gas stations without an attendant present – someone actually watching out for the pumps – is an ideal target for a criminal,” said Trzepacz.
He says the majority of skimmers are installed by a small number of people who travel in packs.
“They’re nomadic by nature,” said Trzepacz. “A lot of them will stay in one place for a few months, skim as much as they can, then pick up and go to an entirely different state.”
Special Agent Noonan agrees. “Once skimmers are located in [one] area, the groups tend to move to a different area or down a different highway or to a different region of Texas.”
Once your card information is stolen, it can hit the black market in a matter of seconds. Criminals may also hold onto the data and make their own credit cards to use at local stores.
There are two red flags that could indicate whether a gas pump contains a skimmer. A broken strip of red tape on the panel means someone tampered with the pump. Customers can also check their phones: a Bluetooth signal could point to a device lodged inside the pump.
But there’s only one way to truly prevent skimming. It’s something Frank Perry says he learned the hard way. “From now, we just pay cash for our gas and don’t even use the card unless we have to,” he said.
If you want to see if your local gas station has ever been hit by skimmers, CBS 11 created an interactive map of more than 200 recent cases.
Rep. Mary Ann Perez (D-Houston) plans to introduce legislation addressing credit card skimmers.
The bill would create a Fusion Center, or a database to help law enforcement across the state share the pertinent data to prosecute skimming suspects while creating preemptive measures to prevent the crime.
The proposal would make it mandatory that a skimmer be reported to the Texas Department of Agriculture within 24 hours.
Under the measure, the Attorney General could take “remedial action” against merchants who fail to report a card skimmer found at their station.Those merchants could also be liable for a civil penalty.
“I am excited that we have had valuable input from various interest groups that are coming together to protect consumers,” wrote Rep. Perez in a statement. “Texas can now set precedent for the nation on how to effectively combat the card skimming epidemic. After months of discussions, I am excited to get the bill filed and looking forward to starting the committee process.”