EFFINGHAM, S.C. (WBTW) – Each year, nearly ten million people become victims of identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission. While data breaches and hacks at large companies have affected millions of people in recent months, people are more likely to have information stolen by someone with direct access to their credit or debit cards.
One way thieves are now stealing personal information with devices called card skimmers. Simply put, skimmers are small devices that can steal card information anywhere a card is swiped. Law enforcement has found skimmers on card readers at gas pumps, ATMs and DVD rental kiosks.
“They got my number and used my card for some stuff – to buy stuff,” recalled Melissa Martin as she pumped gas in Myrtle Beach.
Carter said her card information was stolen several years ago after she swiped her debit card at a gas pump where thieves had installed a card skimmer. By the time she noticed, they racked up a long list of charges on her account.
“It was 30 dollars here, 40 dollars there,” Carter said.
She had never heard of a skimmer, and she is certainly not the only one. Joshua Brown, who uses his card at gas pumps all the time, said he never had reservations doing what many people do every day – swiping a card to pay for just about everything.
“It’s definitely a scary thought to know that it’s just something that simple that they could do and just have every bit of your information out there – your credit card, bank account numbers. It’s definitely a shocking thing to know.”
The U.S. Secret Service says skimming could be netting crooks $3 billion a year in. In South Carolina, the Department of Consumer Affair s says it is hard to know just how prevalent skimming is because it often goes undetected.
“They are put onto a gas pump, “sluthly,” and then they are taken off before a gas pump owner – gas station owner – would even know about it,” explained the department’s administrator Carri Grube Lybarker.
That often means victims don’t know where or how their information was stolen.
“Skimmers are an easy way to get credit card information,” she said. “Those magnetic strips contain the information that someone needs to go ahead and create a new credit card identical to yours and get it out there on the black market.
The stolen information may not just be financial either.
“They can get your Social Security. They can get your Medicaid benefits. They can get medical services in your name. They can go get utilities, a cell phone in your name, a job – really it’s endless,” Lybarker said.
Florence County Sheriff’s Office investigator Ben Price said he has seen that happen. Even for investigators, it is hard to track down exactly where the theft happened.
“Whether or not they’ve been skimmed – again it’s hard to tell if that is the case,” Price said. “Most skimmers that we see and have reported are from people who have come back from vacation, and they are violated somewhere else, and they come back and they find that their account has been used, and they report it to us.”
Something like that happened to Dick Grote and his wife after they used a card at a department store. During his visit to a gas station recently, he explained that he is now overly cautious with his credit and debit cards.
“When we got home we checked our account, and it was overdrawn, and it was to the minus of over 10 thousand dollars,” Grote recalled. “It was an awful stressful thing when you see minus ten grand.”
To spot a skimmer the next time you swipe your card at a pump, there are a few things you can look for. Some gas stations now put tape-like seals on the front panels of pumps, along the seams. If the seal is broken or un-stuck, report it to a store clerk because a skimmer could be inside.
Newer skimmers hook onto the front of card readers. You want to look for anything that could be an extra part… like a silicone ring around the card slot or add-ons that come out from the reader farther than normal.
You can also give any reader a tug to see if it jiggles or feels like the front could come off. Sliding your card should feel smooth.
“If you put the card in and it feels rough or sticks, or you can’t get it out properly, that could be a sign that there’s something inside of the device,” Price said.
Using cash is always an option to avoid skimmers, and thieves are less likely to tamper with card readers near gas station doors. So you are less likely to have problems at pumps closest to stores.
New cards with security chips may help but only if the card readers are updated. Thieves are likely already working on ways to steal information on those cards too.
Carter wishes she knew those tips before she became a victim of a skimmer theft.
“There was nothing that was there that I saw that was unusual, but of course I wasn’t really looking for it at the time,” she said.
Because skimmers can often be so hard to spot – even if you’re looking for them – the best advice to protect yourself is to keep track of your transactions.
“You want to make sure you are looking at your statements regularly, and if you find something you did not make, you need to report it as soon as possible,” Lybarker said.
If you report your card info has been stolen within 60 days, you’ll only have to cover a maximum of $50 on a credit card or $500 for a debit card.
“I would really think about it and secure yourselves if this ever happens,” Carter said.
Anyone who is a victim of a card skimmer or would like to report concerns can call the Department of Consumer affairs at 1-800-922-1594 or go to www.consumer.sc.gov for help.