MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Cordova has been hammered. So has the Medical District.
Identity thieves installing credit/debit card skimmers on gas pumps have singled out a veritable 'Skimmer's Row' of areas where they're most likely to sabotage service stations, according to records supplied by Memphis Police Department and the Secret Service's Mid-South Electronic Crimes Task Force.
"They are gas stations that border heavy traffic areas where customers are more likely to use cards and where there's easier access," said Sgt. Brad Less, a Shelby County sheriff's detective assigned to the task force.
According to the records, thieves installed card-skimming devices on 23 gas pumps at area service stations in the past 14 months.The records revealed the three areas where gas stations are most commonly skimmed are:
* Union Avenue from the 1300 block in the Medical District on the west to the 1600 block in Midtown on the east
* Poplar Avenue from Forest Hill Irene Road in Germantown on the west to the Collierville city line on the east
* Cordova on Germantown Parkway from Dexter Road on the north to the Wolf River on the south
"We've seen a definite uptick in gas pump skimming," said David Stutheit, assistant special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Memphis field office.
Stutheit and Less attributed the uptick to gas retailers being exempt from upgrading their pumps' card-readers to more secure EMV or "chip card" technology.
"The gas stations aren't mandated to update their pumps until sometime in 2018, due to the cost of replacing and updating the pumps," Less said.
So thieves are targeting stations with pumps where they can access the payment card hardware panel and install their own skimmers on the pump's payment card pathway. Stutheit said in some cases, the thieves are using Bluetooth-enabled skimmers.
"Which allows them to sit in close proximity and monitor either by cell phone, laptop, iPad and actually pull real-time data as the cards are being used, right there in the lot," he said.
That may have been the type of skimmer that lifted Kathy Ferguson's credit card number from a gas pump at the Shell station at Union Avenue and Belvedere Boulevard.
"I went to a gas station in Midtown, and I think later that afternoon, I had two hits on my credit card for $204," Ferguson said.
To combat the skimming, the task force developed stickers available to gas retailers by request and at no cost. The blue stickers read, "U.S. Secret Service, Mid-South Electronic Crimes Task Force." Agents place the sticker over the crease where a gas pump's payment card door is opened to access the hardware and software.
"If it's accessed by someone other than the service station, it will give a 'Void' or 'Open' on the tape," Stutheit demonstrated. "It's a visual indicator for someone or a consumer using that pump. They would see that that pump has been opened, and they could question the station or ask them if this pump is OK to use."
"How about that!" exclaimed Bridget Estrada of Cordova when we demonstrated the sticker at the Shell Station, 5521 Poplar Avenue at Yates Road, one of the most proactive stations to use the stickers, according to Stutheit.
Since the service station started using the stickers nearly four months ago, there hasn't been a single attempt to install a skimmer on any of its pump card-readers.
"That (sticker) notifies us when someone has been trying to get into the system," Estrada realized. "So, we as consumers need to pay attention to see if the gas stations carry these stickers."
"I would love to see them at all of our gas stations in Memphis," Ferguson said after watching our demonstration.
"We are being proactive in the Mid-South by educating station owners/managers about pump security and educating the public about protecting their card info and identity," said Less.
Service station managers can request a roll of the security seal stickers by calling the Secret Service's Memphis field office at 901-544-0333.
ANDY'S TIPS FOR USING CREDIT AND DEBIT CARDS AT GAS PUMPS:
* Never use your debit card at a gas pump. If the payment card pathway has a thief's skimmer installed on it, the thief can pull cash right out of your bank account. Instead...
* Use your credit card at a gas pump. With a credit card, you have built-in protections that will allow you to dispute the charge and have it credited back to your account. According to federal law, you are never liable for more than $50 of any disputed credit card charge, and most if not all credit cards these days offer zero liability as a built-in feature. You're just about guaranteed a credit on any card charge dispute.
* Pay cash for a set amount. If you don't want to use either your credit or your debit card, go to the attendant and ask for a set amount -- $15, $25, etc. -- and pay cash for the gas purchase in advance.