Thieves Target Gas Pumps to Skim Credit, Debit Cards

VIDEO: Elisabeth Leamy on how to protect against identity theft.

(Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

High gas prices have been putting a dent in people's wallet in the recent months, but a small device planted by thieves at gas pumps could be affecting your wallet in a much bigger way.

The thieves are known as "skimmers," people who steal debit and credit card account information using a high-tech device at gas pumps.

Skimming has been a financial crime across the United States, but has been particularly an ongoing problem in Southern California. Since January of 2011, there have been four cases reported with the Torrance Police Department, according to Sgt. Steven Jenkinson with the Torrance Police Department. Each case can have many victims, with the most recent case affecting around 130 credit card accounts.

"They accessed the panel behind the pump by prying the door open, and they were able to insert an electrical device that captures your account information when you swipe your card," said  Jenkinson.

A customer was paying for gas by credit card when they realized the card reader was not working. Subsequently, they notified the gas station who decided to call maintenance.

"And then maintenance looked at it. They said, 'hey what is this thing? What's this device in here?' They knew what it was and that's when they called us," said Jenkinson.  Officials arrested three suspects on March 1 for skimming debit and credit card information at the gas pump.

Some gas station owners have taken it upon themselves to prevent the thefts. At Valero gas station in Sierra Madre, Calif., the owner installed four seals on each pump. While the owner declined to comment, Jenkinson explained a broken seal can help the owner identify whether the pump has been tampered with.

"It's not regulated and it's not mandatory," added Jenkinson.

However, he believes it's important for card users at pumps to be aware of the skimmers.

"People can check their bank statements regularly, if not daily to make sure there are no charges they didn't make," he said. Other tips have been to pay inside, use cash, and avoid pumps that seem to have been tampered with.

Read More: Credit Card Skimming: Tips to Protect Yourself

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