Credit card skimmers

A Texas Department of Agriculture investigator holds up a skimmer found at a gas station in Austin.

Falling victim to a credit card skimmer is a sure way to put your finances at risk. In the area surrounding Copperas Cove, that’s becoming more and more prevalent at gas pumps.

Next time you’re gassing up your car or truck, you might want to pay special attention to the pump. It could save you from getting robbed.

Reports of credit-card skimmers have seemed to increase in the Central Texas area in recent weeks. The sneaky devices allow thieves to take your credit card information and PIN number. Usually, they can do this and go undetected for days, until one day the victim checks their bank account and notices purchases they never made.

Gatesville police found one at a gas station earlier this week. According to police Chief Nathan Gohlke, it’s the second time he’s come in contact with one in his 12 years in the city. The first was at the same Cefco gas station in March.

The devices have popped up all over the area.

On June 26, the Texas Department of Agriculture notified local media outlets that there was a skimmer found in a gas pump at an Austin 7-Eleven. On June 22, in Hamilton, a city about 70 miles north of Killeen, police reported two skimmers found in pumps at another Cefco station.

Residents have posted in local crime watch groups on Facebook about the devices being found in Harker Heights and Killeen gas stations, though police could not confirm a report in either city. However, the potential thieves are tougher to keep an eye out for. Instead of using fists, guns or a knife as a weapon, they use a laptop computer and a wireless Bluetooth connection.

Gohlke said in his experience, there is usually a group of people who help carry out these operations. It’s not necessarily a new crime — Killeen police sent out a memo to local law enforcement groups in December 2015 — but it has been seen more frequently.

Those involved in the ring will often open up the gas pump to install the skimmer, Gohlke said. If you arrive at a gas pump and see the blue and white Texas Department of Agriculture sticker that says “Howdy Neighbor!” on it peeled off or broken, that means that the pump has probably been tampered with. Other times, the card reader will have an extension over it.

The skimmer stores the information held in the magnetic stripe on your debit or credit card. To retrieve the information, thieves can sit in their car nearby and wireless download the information through a Bluetooth device. They can then transfer that information to credit cards and make fraudulent purchases both online and in stores.

Mark Loeffler, the communications director for the Department of Agriculture, said that since Sid Miller took over as the commissioner, the department has taken more initiative in checking out the gas pumps, which fall under the department’s jurisdiction. Now, every gas pump in Texas is opened up and inspected within a 12-month time frame. As soon as a gas station reports a problem to the Department of Agriculture, a department official is sent to inspect the pump.

“Here in Texas, we don’t tolerate cattle thieves, horse thieves or cheats,” Miller said in a phone call Thursday.

To avoid getting personal information stolen, travelers should pay for fuel inside instead of at the pump. To really ensure safety, use cash. If the situation forces you to pay at the pump, choose one closest to the store. Those are less likely to be tampered with, according to Gohlke.

Because the skimmers that thieves install often give off a Bluetooth signal, if you approach a gas pump that you believe might have been tampered with, pull out your smartphone and go to the settings tab.

If there is a suspicious looking Bluetooth signal, report the pump to a clerk inside the store, and pay inside. The thieves don’t limit themselves to gas stations either. Any machine with a credit card reader that stands alone — like a soda machine or an ATM — is susceptible.

Being aware of the warning signs is vital. There’s no specific type of store that gets targeted more often, according to Gohlke.

“Doesn’t matter if it’s a little mom and pop shop, or a huge chain,” he said. “It can happen anywhere.”

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