Gas pump skimmers remain a sophisticated way criminals obtain credit and debit card information from East Texans.
Tyler police Sgt. Adam Colby said the skimmer problem is “not as bad as it was a few years ago” but East Texas law enforcement still finds them, although the numbers have decreased significantly.
“In 2017, the most skimmers found in any one city was in Tyler,” he said. “Last year, it was Houston followed by Dallas.”
The East Texas Police Academy at Kilgore College offered a gas skimmer training course in August conducted by Colby to improve enforcement and prevention of stolen credit/debit card information caused by compromised devices.
“Most law enforcement don’t know what we’re dealing with,” Colby said. “As more people are understanding, we are seeing more arrests.”
Skimmers are placed in gas pumps to capture credit or debit card information as well as any ZIP code or pin number entered by keypad.
“If they get your debit card information and run it, they will empty your bank account,” he said.
Once the information is collected, it can be recoded onto a plastic card with a strip.
“Basically, with a $50 device and a laptop, they can make a new card,” Colby said. “They can use the stolen card and will buy gift cards to launder the money.”
Criminals also can launder the money by purchasing diesel fuel and reselling it for pennies on the dollar, he said.
Longview police spokesman Brandon Thornton said the department confiscated about 50 to 60 skimmers in 2019.
“Customers won’t know if a skimmer is installed on the pump since they are put inside of the pumps,” Thornton said.
Overall, the best way to avoid skimmers is to pay with cash inside the store.
“Point-of-sale skimmers are becoming more and more common in this area, so swiping a credit card inside of the store instead of the pump does not guarantee your card won’t be compromised,” Thornton said. “Also, a consumer might want to use an app to pay at the pump.”
Colby wants to help other departments and the state in general know more about skimmers and the organized crime surrounding the practice.
Typically, those who place skimmers are from metro areas and not from Longview, Tyler or other smaller areas.
“It’s a monumental problem for the state,” he said.
Colby compares the organized efforts to place skimmers like the reality show “Deadliest Catch.”
Groups drive from their base on a preset course, place the skimmers like placing pots to catch crabs, let the skimmers sit there and then go back to retrieve the information like fishing crews on the show.
“They’re targeting older-style gas pumps,” he said.
He noted that groups can hit East Texas along Interstate 20 and stop in Longview, Tyler and surrounding towns before moving to Shreveport or back to Houston, for example.
A few years ago, the criminals placing skimmers in Texas were coming primarily from groups based in Houston, Miami and Las Vegas. Now, he said they are coming from places such as Dallas and San Antonio, Colby said.
“At the end of 2019, skimmers were a $1 billion dollar criminal industry,” Colby said, citing Secret Service estimates. He noted that hard numbers are difficult to come by as there is not a central reporting agency for this type of crime. He believes it could be closer to a $4 to 5 billion industry.
“It’s a technology war,” he said. “It’s very sophisticated.”
The goal is to educate local law enforcement so more of these crimes can be prosecuted. Colby added that if criminals cannot make a profit in East Texas or Texas in general, they will move on.