Jen and Anthony Gates’ credit card was declined on July 27. When Jen checked their account, she found a $278 charge at Fry’s on Thomas Road. “We’ve never been there,” the Anthem resident said. She believes the card information had been skimmed at the Circle K gas station on Daisy Mountain Drive. She and her husband appear to be among more than a dozen skimming victims of that one criminal event.
On July 23, two card skimmers were found at that Circle K, according to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
There have been 34 reported victims of credit card fraud that are believed to be connected to those two skimmers, Sgt. Calbert Gillett told In&Out on Aug. 15. “Most victims stated their cards were used over the first weekend in August, approximately 11 days after the skimmer had been located,” MCSO said in a statement.
“Wells Fargo canceled my husband’s card immediately and refunded the money,” Jen Gates said. “We called the bank and they seemed like it was no big deal, they picked up on a fraudulent activity and canceled everything.”
How it Works
To skim, thieves install a device inside a fuel dispenser to copy and store customer credit card or debit card information. They break in again to retrieve the device or use bluetooth to download data wirelessly while sitting in a nearby car. MCSO has reviewed video and physical evidence from the gas station, but as of Aug. 15 had not made any arrests.
“Skimming often involves organized groups that move across city/county/state lines, rather than local individuals,” MCSO Sgt. Joaquin Enriquez told In&Out.
In some cases, the devices are installed, used, then removed without ever being detected, said Michelle Wilson, associate director of Weights and Measures for Arizona, which monitors fuel stations.
If you use a card frequently, and at some point you become a victim of fraud, it can be difficult to know when or where your card data was stolen. Criminals might run up charges within hours, or it could be days or weeks, Wilson said.
Nobody knows how common skimming actually is. Weights and Measures inspects for skimmers at Arizona gas stations regularly. Last year, skimmers were found at both of Anthem’s east-side Circle K locations, according to data from Weights & Measures. The Circle K at Happy Valley Road and 19th Avenue was hit last year and again this year. No other skimmers have been officially recorded in the 85085, 85086 or 85087 zip codes the past four years, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened or won’t.
Wilson pointed out that Circle K “has a big percentage of the market, they have a lot of stores,” so statistically, it’s logical they show up frequently in the data.
Skimmers are often reported by gas station owners, who aren’t required to make such reports.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Wilson said. Her agency recorded 148 skimmers in 2018 and 82 this year through Aug. 14.
Circle K Responds
“While we conduct daily inspections of our fuel dispensers and report all suspicious activities to law enforcement, we pledge to do even more,” according to a statement from Circle K provided to In&Out by Donna Humphrey at the company’s Grand Canyon Division.
On Aug. 15, new technology was installed in all pumps at Circle K on Daisy Mountain Drive, part of a refitting underway at all company locations. The technology, called EMV (Europay, Mastercard and Visa) “offers the same level of security to all smart chip cards,” according to the statement.
Wilson, the Weights and Measures official, said these new card readers will shut down if a criminal fiddles with them, making them more secure.
If you suspect credit card fraud or have any information on this case, MCSO asks you to report it at 602-876-1011. If you suspect a pump may have a skimming device, you can report it at www.agriculture.az.gov/weights-measures-services-division.
Skimmers can steal debit or credit card info at gas stations, outdoor ATMs, or any point-of-sale machine they have covert access to.
Debit cards are particularly problematic because the skimmer can pick up your pin number and drain your bank account, Wilson said. You may get the money back from a cooperative bank, but the process can take time.
“Federal law limits your liability if your credit, ATM, or debit card is lost or stolen, but your liability may depend on how quickly you report the loss or theft,” according to the Federal Trade Commission.
“My card info was stolen from the Circle K by Walmart in Anthem last week,” Lori Herrington said on Anthem News’ Facebook page. “They got $400 before the bank caught it and put a hold on my card. They took a week but did refund me the money.”
Wilson and other experts offer this advice: Before you run your card, inspect the fuel dispenser. Be suspicious of loose or damaged equipment or access panels. Wiggle the exterior of the credit card reader slot to make sure it’s not loose. But those measures may not be enough, given the sophisticated methods skimmers are using. For further protection:
- If you use a debit card, run it as credit to avoid entering your PIN number.
- Use a card with a low credit limit solely for fuel purchases.
- For better protection, pay for gas at the register inside.
For the ultimate protection, use cash.
The Problem with Semi-Security Decals
Many gas stations now have security decals covering the seams of a pump’s access panels. If companies maintain and inspect their systems regularly, a decal can be helpful, said Michelle Wilson, associate director of Weights and Measures for Arizona.
“But in some instances, it can provide a false sense of security, as we have seen skimming devices installed at sites with security seals intact,” she said. Criminals have learned to peel the decals off, then glue them back in place, she said, and other skim scammers buy fake security decals online and simply replace those at a pump.
At one Valley gas station, a manager noticed smudges around a decal, revealing it had been reglued, Wilson said. Sure enough, a skimmer was found inside.
Anthem resident Michelle Dubber said she’s always careful when she fills up at either of the Circle K stations on Anthem’s east side. “I always used it as a credit transaction, made sure the orange tape was on the pumps and nothing looked tampered with,” she told In&Out. On Aug. 5, she said, “we still managed to get scammed for $400.”
At the east-side Circle K on Anthem Way last week, an employee was inspecting the security decals, some of which were intact, he said, even though trails of previous stickers were clearly visible. Meanwhile, the key for the access panel is unique to each Circle K outlet, he said, and inside the panel is a zip tie that a scammer must cut to finally gain access. Zip ties of different colors are used, and only the one employee knows the color of each, he said.
The pumps are inspected daily for possible breaches, the employee said. Has it become a full-time job? “Pretty much,” he said.