How to Avoid Card Skimmers at the Pump

Previous stories here on the proliferation of card-skimming devices hidden inside fuel pumps have offered a multitude of security tips for readers looking to minimize their chances of becoming the next victim, such as favoring filling stations that use security cameras and tamper-evident tape on their pumps. But according to police in San Antonio, Texas, there are far more reliable ways to avoid getting skimmed at a fuel station.

San Antonio, like most major U.S. cities, is grappling with a surge in pump skimming scams. So far in 2018, the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) has found more than 100 skimming devices in area fuel pumps, and that figure already eclipses the total number of skimmers found in the area in 2017. The skimmers are hidden inside of the pumps, and there are often few if any outward signs that a pump has been compromised.

In virtually all cases investigated by the SAPD, the incidents occurred at filling stations using older-model pumps that have not yet been upgraded with physical and digital security features which make it far more difficult for skimmer thieves to tamper with fuel pumps and siphon customer card data (and PINs from debit card users).

Lt. Marcus Booth is the financial crimes unit director for the SAPD. Booth said most filling stations in San Antonio and elsewhere use legacy pumps that have a vertical card reader and a flat, membrane-based keypad. In addition, access to the insides of these older pumps frequently is secured via a master key that opens not only all pumps at a given station, but in many cases all pumps of a given model made by the same manufacturer.

Older model fuel pumps like this one feature a flat, membrane-based keypad and vertical card reader. Image: SAPD.

In contrast, Booth said, newer and more secure pumps typically feature a horizontal card acceptance slot along with a raised metallic keypad — much like a traditional payphone keypad and referred to in the fuel industry as a “full travel” keypad: