For Immediate ReleaseDecember 20, 2019
County Weights & Measures inspector deactivates suspicious device
San Rafael, CA – An illegal credit card skimming device recently was discovered at a San Anselmo gas station and seized as evidence for federal authorities. Several experts who monitor credit card fraud said consumers should not be surprised.
While investigating a consumer complaint regarding an alleged under-delivery of fuel, a County of Marin Weights & Measures official inspected the pumps earlier this month at Gas & Shop on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Upon gaining entry to the inside of the gas pump compartment, the inspector examined the wiring system of the pump, the card reader, the keypad, and the receipt printing system.
The inspector, who had been trained by state law enforcement and state weights and measures officials, detected the illegal skimming device used to capture unsuspecting customers’ credit and debit card numbers, ZIP codes, and PINs. The Marin inspector deactivated the pump immediately to protect customers, and the normal dispensing of gas continued.
The Marin inspection team worked with local law enforcement and the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force to remove the skimming device from the pump. It was seized as evidence for further investigation and will likely be turned over to the United States Secret Service for possible criminal prosecution. Often, the Federal Bureau of Investigation gets involved as well.
Weights and Measures officials perform routine and special-circumstances inspections of gas pumps throughout the county. Approximately one or two skimmers per year are discovered in Marin by law enforcement and Weights and Measures officials combined. Weights and Measures inspectors also test devices used in commercial transactions, including grocery store scales, propane dispensers, and other devices in which sales occur based on weight, measure, or count.
There are about 10,000 gas stations and 200,000 fueling dispensers throughout California, according to the California Department of Food & Agriculture’s Division of Measurement Standards. John Larkin, a supervising special investigator with that division, said on December 19 that 286 skimmers have been discovered and confiscated thus far in 2019. He said that’s probably a tiny fraction of the amount that have been planted and that he expects more are discovered this holiday season.
“The most we’ve found was seven or eight skimmers at one gas station,” Larkin said. “We might find one and pull it out, but two months later another one is found in the same pump. It’s a vicious cycle.”
The state agency is building a seminar series to educate gas station and convenience store employees about skimmers. Although there is no failsafe cure-all, those in the retail industry need to go through trainings to help prevent them from becoming a victim of such crime, he said.
John George is an investigations supervisor with the Marin County District Attorney’s Office and the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force. He said many skimmer installations are done by organized crime syndicates, including ones based overseas, that send in people to plant skimmers for a few days and then move to the next town, city, or county.
“People should check their card statements more often, have strong passwords, and change them often,” he said. “It’s all stuff we know that we should be doing but not many people do them.”
George said people should use try to pull up next to gas pumps that are closest to the clerk’s window to increase the odds of surveillance. Even then, criminals can install a skimmer in full view of an attendant or a surveillance camera especially if they are hidden behind a large vehicle.
“They can install a skimmer in 3-5 seconds – that’s the record we have on video,” Larkin said. “Most of them take 10-15 seconds. If they take their time to hide it really well, it’s more like 30 seconds. They practice, and they know what they’re doing. It’s their job.”
Consumers should avoid using stand-alone ATMs, which are more vulnerable to illegal manipulation than ATMs at banks. Countertop card-reading devices placed in front of cashiers are just as vulnerable to manipulation because clerks can be easily distracted long enough for a criminal to plant a skimmer, Larkin said.
What’s the best way to avoid concerns about skimmers and minimize the potential for fraud? “Cash is gold,” Larkin said.
Consumers in Marin are urged to immediately contact the Marin County Weights & Measures division if they suspect a skimmer may be present in a gas pump, or if they suspect other forms of fraud such as being charged more than a posted or advertised price for any merchandise or service. Contact the Department’s 24/7 Consumer Help Line at 415-473-7888.
Stacy CarlsenCommissionerDepartment of Agriculture, Weights and Measures
1682 Novato Blvd.Suite 150-ANovato, CA 94947(415) 473-6700Email: Stacy CarlsenAWM website