In worrying development, ‘Skimmers’ hack gas pumps to read credit cards

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A “skimmer” circuit board found inside a gas pump in San Diego County. Courtesy of San Diego County Agriculture Weights and Measures

A former San Diego police officer, Larry Avrech, had been warned by another former cop about selling keys on the Internet that could open gas pumps. Their first question was: is this legal?

Their second question was, why would anyone want to open a gas pump?

Images Avrech found online showed two “replacement gasoline pump lock keys.”

The answer comes from Brian Krebs, a former journalist who is an expert in computers and Internet security.

“For decades, only a handful of master keys were needed to open the vast majority of pumps in America,” Krebs said. “That has changed, but I bet there are older stations that haven’t updated their locks yet.”

It is “entirely possible and plausible,” Krebs said, that “the keys are used to open the pumps. The goal, he said, is for thieves who use “skimmers”.

Skimmers are cleverly disguised electronic technology that thieves attach to cash machines, gas pumps, and self-service checkouts to steal credit card data. Krebs, a former Washington Post reporter, explained that types of skimmers vary in sophistication.

In some cases, thieves must return to the scene of the crime to retrieve the data. More sophisticated strategies use SMS to send the data.

In San Diego County, skimmer devices are verified on-site as part of 700 gas station inspections performed annually by the San Diego County Office of Agricultural Weights and Measures. Typically, the locations chosen to place skimmers are close to highways, have easy entry and exit road access, do not have an associated store or kiosk, and are closed overnight.

Gig Conaughton, communications specialist for the department, said this year that inspectors found six protein skimmers, all of which have been removed by the U.S. Secret Service. Conaugton said he couldn’t provide the exact locations “because there is still an active investigation going on.” But he was able to say that inspectors found the skimmers “separate at two locations in Santee and National City”.

The Secret Service is involved because it is part of the US Treasury Department. She is also active in the prosecution of credit card fraud.

If local inspectors find a skimmer, they will open “and inspect 100% of the pumps at that station,” Conaughton said, adding that “we are prioritizing survey stations with lower security or that have a history of skimmer ”.

For the holder of a credit or debit card, experts say this is another reason to monitor your card usage as often as possible.

So, is anyone suing key internet sellers? Not really. As Conaughton explained, “there are no laws or regulations prohibiting the sale or copying of generic gas station keys.”

JW August is a San Diego-based digital and broadcast journalist.


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