Secret Service warns DC area of card skimmers at ATMs, gas stations

The Secret Service is associated with protecting the U.S. president and other dignitaries, but the agency was created in 1860 to put a stop to currency counterfeiting. They still investigate financial fraud — more of it than ever — and that includes the skimmers found on ATMs and gas station pumps.

“Investigations are definitely increasing as more financial crimes become digital,” said Kelli Lewis, the laboratory director of the forensic services division of the U.S. Secret Service.

Special Agent Peter Brown, who investigates skimming at gas pumps out of the field office in Miami, said the crime has been growing “exponentially.”

“There’s no way for you and I to tell there’s [a skimmer] inside the pump” until after the crook has gotten a debit card number and PIN, Brown said. He knows well, having been victimized twice by this crime himself.

This is all the equipment it takes to get your card number and PIN. It takes between 30 and 60 seconds to install. (WTOP/John Domen)

The crooks are able to order the part of the gas pump you insert your card into, and they usually work as teams to install it — a process that only takes 30 to 60 seconds, Brown said.

One person goes into the gas station to talk to the attendant, or at least block their view, while someone else screws in the new part, which has a Bluetooth-enabled card reader inside. Then they drive away, show up a little while later, connect their phone or laptop to the Bluetooth, and wait for you to put your card in next.

“These guys are making tens of thousands of dollars a day depending on how many skimmers they deploy,” said Brown. “These guys are not driving Honda Civics,” he said as he pointed out some scammers who were busted on a video.

“They’re driving brand-new Tahoes, Range Rovers.” One crew, he added, had a Lamborghini.

Any gas station that has an attendant outside is probably safe though — Brown said crooks will usually avoid anywhere they might get caught.

This scam has spread from south Florida to Southern California and everywhere in between, but it’s not something he’s seen much of in the D.C. region yet.

He’s hoping new technology — as well as chip readers on gas pumps, which will be required by October 2020 — will help stamp out this crime, because if the crooks are using the right technology, it’s almost impossible to stop in advance.

But still, if you’re filling up at a gas station that doesn’t have someone outside regularly, he said, there are other things you can do to prevent getting scammed.

“Prepay inside, or use cash,” Brown said. For a “normal citizen,” he said, “There’s no way to tell that there’s anything inside the pump.”

Shaun Gause, of Critical Systems Protection, explains that the layman can’t tell an ATM or a gas pump has a skimmer on it. (WTOP/John Domen)
John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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