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Gas prices aren't the only numbers rising at the pump: Card skimmers are more prevalent than ever, adding risk to a trip to the gas station. A FICO report from 2022 found that there was a 759% year-over-year increase in card skimming, and gas station pumps are a prime location for skimming devices.
Card skimming happens at gas stations when a criminal installs a skimming device in or on the card readers customers use to buy gas at the pump. These devices can read and download card information so criminals can create copies of your debit card or credit card. Here's what you should know about card skimmers and how to avoid them.
How Does Card Skimming Occur at Gas Stations?
Gas stations may be popular targets for card skimmers because there often aren't nearby employees watching what someone does at the pump. And since many gas station customers aren't in the habit of checking for skimmers before inserting their card for payment, they may go undetected for days or weeks.
In addition to devices that steal information from the card's magnetic stripe, the criminals may also install small cameras or thin overlays on the keypad to capture what you type. This allows them to use your debit or credit card even if they're asked for your PIN or ZIP code when making a purchase.
If the card skimmer is not found and disposed of, the criminals can return later to download all the stolen card information nabbed from scores of gas station customers. They then create copies of cards and use them to make fraudulent purchases or withdrawals, or sell the stolen card details to other criminals.
How to Protect Yourself From Card Skimming at Gas Stations
There are several ways to help keep your card's information safe when you're filling up your gas tank.
Pay With Cash or Use Your Card Inside
Paying with cash is a sure way to make sure your card information isn't compromised. But even if you don't want to use cash—perhaps because you've got a great gas rewards credit card—paying inside where employees can keep an eye on the card readers could be a good idea.
Use a Digital Wallet
Some gas stations now accept payments from digital wallets, such as Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay. Gas stations may also offer their own rewards and payment apps, which you can use to pay for gas and earn rewards. These can be a safe option because you never have to insert or swipe your card.
Use Tap-to-Pay or the Chip Reader
If digital wallets aren't your thing, or they're not an option, try to use the next safest option: contactless payments. As with digital wallets, tapping your card keeps it from having to interact with potential skimming devices. Inserting the chip in your card is the next safest option because EMV chips encrypt information. However, shimming devices (skimming devices designed to copy data from cards' chips) still might steal your card's info.
Use a Credit Card Rather Than a Debit Card
If you have to swipe a card, using a credit card is often better than a debit card. Although both types of cards commonly offer zero liability protection for unauthorized transactions, your debit card is connected directly to your bank. If thieves get ahold of that card's info, they might be able to withdraw money from an ATM and quickly drain your account.
Cover the Keypad
Covering the keypad when you enter your ZIP code or PIN could keep cameras from recording what you type. Although keypad overlays could still steal this information, it's still a simple step that could help. It has the added benefit of protecting you from shoulder surfers.
Investigate the Card Terminal
You can also look for physical signs of tampering by comparing the card reader at your gas pump to nearby pumps. If you notice an extra piece added or missing, that could be a sign that someone has installed a skimmer. You can also look for a security seal on the pump—the FTC has a picture of what untampered and voided labels look like.
What to Do if Your Card Has Been Skimmed
You won't know that your card has been skimmed until you see unusual transactions, which is why it's important to regularly monitor your account and review card statements. You can also set up card alerts to get emails, texts or app notifications for new transactions.
If you notice an unauthorized transaction, you can dispute it and report the compromise to your bank, credit union or card issuer. The company should close your account immediately and send you a replacement card. You generally aren't liable for these unauthorized transactions as long as you report the theft right away, so don't hesitate.
Once you receive your new card, update your other accounts with the new card's info to avoid accidentally missing a bill.
Monitor Your Credit for Other Signs of Fraud
Monitoring your credit reports won't tell you whether someone has stolen your card's information. However, it can be important for identifying signs of identity theft, such as a new hard inquiry or credit account in your credit report.
You can use Experian's free credit monitoring to get real-time alerts when there are important changes in your credit report. Your account will also provide you with your FICO® Score☉ for free and score tracker insights on what factors are helping or hurting your credit score the most.