FORT MYERS, Fla. – It can be challenging to guard against criminals eyeing your debit and credit cards, but there is one defense against popular skimming devices.
What are skimmers
Skimmers are electronic devices designed to read the magnetic stripe on the back of your credit card. Crooks can use handheld skimmers inside places like restaurants, or they can hide the devices inside ATMs and gas pumps.
Criminals can then access the card information from the skimmer to make counterfeit credit cards.
The devices are so popular that local authorities coined the term “skimmer farming,” meaning criminals are planting these devices all over Southwest Florida, then when the time is right, collect their harvest.
Gas station inspections
The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is in charge of inspecting gas stations. Every year, department inspectors visit more than 9,000 gas stations across the state. Inspectors look at, among other things, gasoline quality and pricing, as well as pump maintenance, which includes looking for skimmers.
“I have to look everyday [for skimmers during inspections] because there’s some new device out there that we have to hunt for,” explained state Department of Agriculture Inspector Jim Bougard.
During one of his routine gas station inspections, Bougard allowed WINK News to observe what he looks for when he opens a pump. His routine inspection is the only thing protecting users from criminals.
“[Criminals are] getting sneakier and sneakier,” he explained.
Bougard added that he once found a skimmer device inside a gas pump.
“I did…it was in line on here, it was like a hobby-grade, bound in heat-strength materials,” he said. “It looked like it was a hand-made electronic device. It stood out like a sore thumb.”
The skimmer was obviously out-of-place when looking at the pump from the inside, but not noticeable from the outside.
Keeping Track of Crime
Last year, the state started keeping track of how many skimmers they found in gas station pumps: 179 statewide, including eight in Lee County and one in Charlotte County.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office also started taking notice of the popular crime trend.
“It’s popular because it’s generally easy to carry out the crime,” Det. Kevin Regtuyt said. “People go undetected, and there’s a good chance of financial gain while doing this.”
Since May 2014, the sheriff’s office has conducted task force sweeps of gas stations about once every quarter. They team up with the Cape Coral Police Department and the state Department of Agriculture in order to fan out across Lee County and inspect as many gas pumps as possible.
Four were found during a recent sweep. The department found 15 skimmers last year.
State lawmakers are currently considering bills that would increase penalties for someone found with counterfeit credit cards and require gas stations to increase security measures to better protect their pumps.
There are steps residents can take to reduce their chances of becoming a victim of a skimmer:
- Look for tamper-proof stickers on the pumps
- Ask the station about what kind of surveillance do they have in place on their pumps
- Check your bank or credit card statement regularly
- Pay in cash