Heading out on a vacation road trip? Watch out at the fuel pump for a threat to your debit or credit card: skimmers. Gas stations, among the last retailers to install fraud-reducing EMV-chip card readers, remain an attractive target this summer for card-skimming crews.
Skimmers can be hidden in and around gas pumps’ card readers, secretly recording the data stored in your credit or debit card’s magnetic stripe. Fraudsters use that data to make counterfeit cards, rack up pricey purchases at your expense, and potentially drain your bank account.
Tips for safer swiping
Here are five ways to feel more secure at the gas pump:
- Run your transaction (even with a debit card) as a credit card purchase. If thieves crack your debit card, they’ll be able to access your bank account. And although you can minimize your losses if you call your bank quickly, your liability for losses on credit card purchases is much more limited.
- Choose a fuel dispenser that’s close to the store — ideally, one with security cameras installed nearby. Criminals would be less likely to tamper with pumps that are visible to workers inside the store.
- Opt for well-maintained service stations. Proprietors who keep their premises shipshape are also more likely to be inspecting and taking care of their pumps, says Jeff Lenard, vice president for strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores. These stores account for 80% of all U.S. gas sales. Some stations have adopted visible anti-tampering measures, such as placing tamper-resistant tape over the front panel edges. That’s a reassuring sign of vigilance.
- Take a minute or two to examine the dispenser before inserting your card. Does it look like the front panel has been pried apart? Is the keypad raised, rather than flush against the console? Do its buttons look different from the ones at neighboring pumps? Does the card reader look different? Is the reader loose in its socket? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, the pump may have been tampered with; don’t use it.
- Better yet, pay with cash. No card use means no risk of skimming.
For that matter, take similar precautions at the ATM during your summer road trip; skimming crews still target cash machines too. And if you fear your debit card or credit card has been compromised, stolen or lost, contact your bank or credit card issuer right away. Get in touch within two business days of the event, if you can; that will limit your liability for any unauthorized charges to $50.
Why fraud lurks at the pump
Installing EMV-chip card readers is a costly and complex upgrade for gas stations, industry experts say: Replacement of the entire fuel dispenser is required. An October 2017 EMV compliance deadline imposed by Mastercard and Visa on gas stations has been extended to October 2020.
“Without PIN use, EMV is less successful in reducing fraud,” Lenard says.
A PIN is an additional layer of security, and although your debit card requires it, you probably won’t punch in a PIN at the pump when using an EMV credit card.
Visa noted late last year that fraud at EMV-enabled merchants had been reduced by 43% — huge strides, but the crime is far from eradicated.
Caren Weiner Campbell is a staff writer at at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ccampbell_nw.