HELENA – As Montanans hit the road for summer trips, law enforcement leaders are reminding travelers to watch out for credit-card skimmers.
“There’s been about a 70 percent increase in payment card scams occurring around the United States,” said Bryan Lockerby, administrator of the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation.
One of the most common tactics is the use of a skimmer, a small device attached to an ATM or credit card slot that collects customers’ information and transmits it to a criminal.
“They take that transaction information that’s on the strip of a debit or a credit card, try to get a PIN number and use that to cash in for criminal purposes,” Lockerby said.
Lockerby said criminals usually place skimmers in places that aren’t consistently monitored. He said the most common is a gas pump, where at least 60 percent of those offenses occur. He said gas pumps are especially attractive targets, because they will not be required to upgrade to more secure chip card readers for several more years.
“The criminals go to the low-hanging fruit,” he said.
Anyone can be a victim: Lockerby said his daughter had her information stolen several months ago – and then it happened to him.
“I received a fraud alert via phone from my bank, saying someone tried to use your debit card in California,” he said. “So it’s very likely that it happened to me, using a gas pump here in Montana.”
Lockerby said there will most likely be a skimmer on only one pump at a station, usually one farthest from the staff’s view, in a darker area or hidden from cameras.
Gas station owners are taking steps to discourage skimmers. Deb Monroe, owner of Monroe’s High Country Travel Plaza in Helena, said her employees check credit card slots several times a day, to make sure they aren’t loose and nothing has been attached.
Monroe also said her station invested in new locks for the gas pumps. She said older gas pumps usually had standard locks, so a scammer could get a single key and open many pumps to install internal skimmers.
Some gas stations also place small adhesive seals over their pump panels. If that seal is broken, it could be a sign someone has tampered with the machine.
If you see anything suspicious at the pump, Lockerby said the best thing to do is simply to let someone know.
“All you have to do is notify a clerk and maybe go to a different pump, and you’ll be fine,” he said.
Lockerby said credit cards have more layers of protection than debit cards. He also said, if you want to avoid any identity theft risk, you can always pay for your gas with cash.
If you have questions about any scams, you can contact the Montana Office of Consumer Protection at (406) 444-4500. Information is also available on the agency’s website.