Despite crackdown efforts from state agencies, hundreds of illegal credit card skimmers are still winding up on gas pumps all around Florida, including some in Jacksonville.
The Florida Department of Agriculture sent our News4Jax patner a lengthy list of all the skimmers that have been found statewide since the agency began collecting data in 2015.
Since the beginning of 2018 in Northeast Florida, 16 cases have popped up where skimmers were found, with the most being found in Alachua County. Some stations had skimmers found more than once.
One of the stations hit hardest in Jacksonville is the Sunoco on Cassat Avenue. That station had three illegal skimmers discovered in May.
The owner said she was contacted the same day by both a customer and the Department of Agriculture. The station has since replaced all of its card readers with new ones that the owner was told are tamper-proof.
Officials with the Department of Agriculture estimated a skimmer will steal about 100 people’s information before it’s discovered, costing victims an average of $1,000. A law that took effect last October made Florida the first state to ban skimmers. Possession of a credit card skimmer is a third-degree felony.
Many drivers say they're aware of the dangers and regularly check card readers at gas pumps to make sure they’re not fakes.
“You better believe it’s scary,” Randy Smith said. “I check that thing. If it moves, I’m not touching it.”
Chris Hamer, a cybersecurity expert, said movement is one way to spot a fake reader.
“The card reader, give a tug on it. If you tug on it and it comes off in your hand, there's a good chance it's not supposed to do that,” Hamer said.
Workers at multiple gas stations around Jacksonville said they check either daily or as often as every shift to make sure their card readers haven’t been tampered with, but many fake skimmers are designed to look very realistic.
The owner at the Cassat Sunoco said the skimmers found there looked so real that the staff didn’t know they were fake until they were contacted about the fraud.
Hamer said another warning sign is a broken seal on the tamper-proof label or if the label appears to have been moved. He said if you spot anything out of the ordinary with the seal, alert the staff and don't use that pump.
“You really don't have a lot of options to determine which pumps have been compromised,” Hamer said.
And many drivers feel like all they can do is hope they're safe.
“Just pray and swipe. What can you do? It’s everywhere,” lamented Juliette Galvez.
Other options to detect skimmers involve cellphones, but Hamer said he's leery of those.
One such method involves using a Bluetooth scanner because some skimmers operate on a Bluetooth frequency.
“The problem with that is you may not be aware of every Bluetooth transmitter in that area,” Hamer said. “Someone in another vehicle could have a Bluetooth headset that could be transmitting. The criminal's not going to label it 'Pump skimmer No. 4.'”
But investigators in Texas who look into skimmers have said that if you see a Bluetooth signal with a lot of random letters and numbers, that could indicate a skimmer is in the area.
Another cellphone-related option involves apps that claim to detect skimmers, but Hamer was even more skeptical about those, saying he doesn’t believe they’re reliable.
Other tips from agriculture officials include:
Use a gas pump closer to the front of the store. Thieves often place skimmers at the gas pumps farther away from the store.
Use a credit card instead of a debit card. Credit cards have better fraud protection and the money is not deducted immediately from an account.
If using a debit card at the pump, choose to run it as a credit card instead of putting a PIN in. That way, the PIN is safe.
Monitor bank accounts regularly to spot any unauthorized charges.
Consumers who suspect their credit card number has been compromised should report it immediately to authorities and their credit card company.
Of course, the most surefire way to avoid a credit card skimmer is to forgo the convenience of the in-pump scanner and walk inside to pay -- and use cash.