Financial gurus have long said to avoid paying for daily purchases on a credit card to avoid going in to debt and having to deal with high interest rates, but there may be one more reason on top of that one to pay with the greenback- fraud. As technology has improved over the last five years, so has the ease of stealing credit and debit card numbers from gas station transactions.
In 2006, a chain of 51 Wesco stations in the Midwest informed customers that had used credit and debit cards at gas pumps that they likely had their credit card numbers stolen. The acknowledgment came after customers reported inaccurate credit card charges, all having used the pay-at-the-pump of one of the 51 locations owned by the chain.
In an interesting turn, it was discovered that only customers that paid at the pump had inaccurate charges posted to their credit and debit cards while customers that paid inside the store had no issues.
After countless calls and e-mails to Wesco asking for more information and what the company has done in response, I have not received any returned calls. I also placed calls to ask about pay-at-the-pump credit card security to several large chains based throughout the U.S., including Midwest based Speedway/SuperAmerica, who declined comment on the matter. Speedway/SuperAmerica operates well over 1,500 gas stations throughout nine states in the Midwest.
However, a situation recently developed in Salt Lake City that may have exposed a problem plaguing credit and debit card safety at the pump. I contacted a reporter for KSL in Salt Lake who reported on an issue called credit card "skimming". In the story the reporter notes that there are two gas pump manufacturers that supply most pumps across the U.S. and issue universal keys for those pumps.
The problem comes when the criminal gains access to the pump with a universal key, and tampers with the payment and credit card systems, many times installing false keypads that can grab your credit card information. Criminals can then access the data wirelessly and make fake cards with your information. They then proceed to go to merchants and pile up charges as quickly as possible before you notice.
Maverik, a chain of stations in the Western United States, seeks to make motorists safer at the pump. Maverik has been installing new locks at each station it operates, significantly deterring access to sensitive areas of the pump. David Hancock, legal counsel for Maverik, told me that while replacing the locks and adding safety measures does come at a cost, it is necessary to ensure that customers have a reasonable level of security when paying at the pump.
According to Hancock, Maverik has been installing the locks over the past year at its locations, spending hundreds of dollars at each location in the name of additional credit and debit card safety. Hancock cites Maverik's proactive stance- even having an active loss prevention team- for the safety measures.
I contacted Gilbarco, a major manufacturer of gasoline pumps across the nation, and asked if having a universal key was problematic or if Gilbarco had plans to change locks to increase safety. The response was that "due to both physical and technology breaches on all brands of dispensers, retailers are aware and are taking precautions which include tamper resistant hardware, programming and regular inspections to thwart these actions." Gilbarco also added that lock options are made available for their units on a "cost effective basis".
While the issue of credit card skimming doesn't seem to be a widespread crisis, as the information and technology comes available, expect there to be a rise in this type of fraud in coming years. For now, if you're at a independent station with older equipment or pumps that may seem suspect (it is very difficult to see any differences), remember to pay cash, or if you don't have cash, use a credit card- it is much safer than debit. Should you use your debit card and your information be stolen, criminals can empty your bank account. You have recourse should this happen with your credit card.
To lessen the opportunity for credit card skimming and fraud, I recommend going into the store to process transactions, and sign all credit card receipts. Check your card statement as soon as it's available and report inconsistencies as soon as possible.