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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 10:17 am | A Few Clouds 57º


Debit-Card Scammers Taking a Swipe at Gas Station Customers

Santa Barbara retiree Cheryl Rogers became one of many victims of 'skimming' devices, an increasingly popular type of fraud

It was just another day at the pump for Santa Barbara retiree Cheryl Rogers. She swiped her card, filled her tank and was on her way.

“About three days later, I looked at my checking account online, and I was just stunned to see that there was a $75 and $99 charge from gas stations in the Inland Empire,” Rogers said about transactions that manifested after her Dec. 27 gasoline expense.

Debit card “skimming” has taken many forms, but installing card readers or skimmers in gas pumps has been a popular scam in California and throughout the nation.

Thieves attach covert skimmers, usually placed inside the pump or attached over the card reader with double-sided tape, and transmit stolen credit card and personal identification numbers through Bluetooth technology, according to Santa Barbara police Lt. Paul McCaffrey. The thieves then transfer that data to blank magnetic-stripped cards and drain accounts.

“It’s a feeling like you’ve been raped,” Rogers said. “You invest your money in something you thought was safe, but this makes you realize it’s all out there in the open.”

If the thieves obtain the correct key, they can insert a device inside the pump where it can’t be seen, police said.

“It’s a big scam. I can’t understand why there hasn’t been more publicity or awareness,” Rogers said. “I was first stunned, and then I felt that there was no way to protect myself except to stop using the debit card.”

Rogers called the bank about the suspicious purchases. She recognized that the dates of the purchases were right after her stop at the Mobil gas station on upper De la Vina Street.

“I’ve decided I’m only going to pay with cash,” Rogers said. “Why haven’t gas station operators realized this and put a stop to it?”

Skimming has been popular nationwide, and many times it’s an “in-house” scheme, according to Santa Barbara County crime prevention specialist Tony Durham.

“It’s been a productive scam down south, so it well get up here eventually, but that’s nature of the beast,” he said.

Los Angeles police identified 380 victims of credit or debit card fraud at a Sierra Madre gas station with losses exceeding $109,000. The area was first hit in late December. Numerous scams on the East Coast have manifested since 2008.

But the scam has made its way to Santa Barbara, McCaffrey said, although he was unable to say how many cases of gas pump debit-card skimming have occurred.

“A lot of us like to think we can trust things in Santa Barbara,” Rogers said. “I moved out of Los Angeles, where I constantly had to look over my shoulder and it was not safe. When I moved up, I thought I was going to be safe, but when someone can reach into your pocket you lose sense of safety and security.”

Santa Barbara police arrested two suspects for burglary, forgery and theft of credit cards on Dec. 2, McCaffrey said. They obtained stolen credit card information and tried to buy $2,400 worth of gift cards from Albertsons. Although McCaffrey is uncertain, he said he suspects the thieves obtained the information through gas pump skimmers.

“It’s a problem anywhere,” he said. “It has happened at gas stations in the city.”

Debit cards don’t offer the same fraud protection as credit cards. If someone skims a credit card number, the bank will investigate the charges without the victim losing money immediately, unlike debit cards, where it could take 10 days to replenish funds, said Dan Oriskovich, vice president and senior relationship manager at Chase Bank.

“For every device we create to prevent fraud, criminals are two steps ahead of us, and it’s getting worse because of the economy,” he said. “Many times when they do obtain the information, they package the information and sell it overseas or domestically.”

Oriskovich said he and his wife have been victims of fraud. The thieves withdrew $288 a day to try to maintain a low profile, he said.

“Everyone with a debit card, if they haven’t already, will face some type of fraud in the near future,” Oriskovich said.

Americans are increasingly relying on debit cards rather than credit cards. Debit card transactions have increased from 47.7 percent in 2003 to 58.9 percent in 2008, according to the Nilson Report, a newsletter that tracks the consumer payment industry.

If one must use a debit card at the gas pump, police advise to choose the screen prompt that identifies it as a credit card to maximize protection.

“It’s hard to keep up,” Rogers said. “The law has to move more quickly. I hope they catch up before too much damage is done.”

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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