Deanna Dewberry, NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit
One trip to the gas station and one swipe of your card could lead to an empty bank account. But you can protect yourself and your money by choosing credit over debit.
Where North Texans pump gas is just as critical as what method they use to pay when it comes to protecting their money and bank accounts from crooks. Experts say skimming at gas stations is one of the fastest-growing financial crimes in the country.
Gas station skimming happens when would-be thieves place electronic devices inside the pumps. When consumers swipe their credit or debit cards at outdoor gas pumps, the criminal’s device captures the card number and PIN.
The thieves can then retrieve that information later and use it to drain bank accounts or make fraudulent credit card purchases.
“This is an indiscriminate crime,” said Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Lori Burks, who prosecutes financial crimes. “They don’t know who they’re victimizing. They don’t know whether it’s someone who can afford to lose two grand and not miss it, or whether the person that they’re victimizing only has $2,000 in their account because four people have worked really hard for all month to save up for their rent, and the check hasn’t come through yet.”
In 2012, Burks prosecuted a case against Alexander Goukasian. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being found guilty for his part in a sophisticated skimming scheme, which yielded 38,000 credit or debit card numbers and $280,000 in cash.
“We don’t need criminals taking advantages of our conveniences that we use, and our conveniences become a necessity,” said Burks, about the tough sentence. “It undermines our confidence in our financial system.”
In that case, there were 13 skimmers found in North Texas, with others found in Houston, California and Nevada, and the devices were fashioned out of the bottom of a Ziploc container. Just last week, 44-year-old Arkadi Minassian of Granada Hills, California, pleaded guilty to fraudulent use of identifying information in Harris County. Investigators said he was part of the same operation as Goukasian but was caught in the Houston area.
“I’ve never seen a device of this nature,” said Euless Detective Brian Brennan, who investigated the case involving Goukasian. “The suspects nowadays seem to be coming up with more and creative ways for committing these acts.”
NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit looked at that case, and several others, and found criminals placed devices at gas stations all over the DFW area from Blue Mound to Lake Dallas and from Plano to Mesquite.
While experts said there is sometimes no rhyme or reason for how crooks choose the gas stations they target, there may be a few common threads to learn from the Goukasian case.
“The pumps that they typically targeted were ones that were furthest from where the actual teller or the actual technician or cashier was located,” said Brennan.
Brennan is part of the North Texas Financial Crime Task Force, a coalition of local and national law enforcement officials, including the Secret Service, that investigate cases like this. He also said in this case gas stations near highways were targets.
“They predominately chose gas stations that were near immediate access to freeways where they could get on and off,” Brennan said.
Student Had No Idea He Was a Victim of Skimming
Graduate student Trevor Moffitt was at first an unknowing victim in the Goukasian case.
“I had no idea, no idea at all,” Moffit said, until the day he got a letter from authorities saying they were investigating someone who had been skimming credit cards and his card was compromised.
Authorities asked if he had been to a gas station off the toll road in Plano, and he had.
“I usually don’t go to that one, but I needed gas that day and it was convenient right there off the toll road. And I stopped and used that gas station,” he said.
So Moffit went to speak with authorities and was surprised by what they showed him.
“I went in. They had a big list of numbers. And they pointed out one, and they said, ‘Is this your debit card number?’ And it was. And then they moved over to the next column and said ‘Is this your PIN number?’ And it was,” said Moffitt. “I was pretty freaked out”
Luckily, Moffitt had recently closed his bank account, so he lost no money. But he learned a valuable lesson.
“That was kind of an eye-opener of what could happen and how easy they can get that information, said Moffitt.
And he changed his habits at the pump, which authorities said was smart.
Brennan recommends avoiding using a debit card and never using a PIN number. He said instead use a credit card, so if your card is compromised money doesn’t come directly out of your bank account.
Consumers can also sign up for text alerts so they know when their account gets a charge. Or they can pay with cash.
Some gas stations are also placing seals on their pumps, which are meant to show they haven’t been opened. But while some gas stations are taking a proactive approach, part of the problem is many pumps are accessible with a universal key, making them an easy target for would-be thieves.
“We all have to get in our cars and go to work. We have to get to the grocery store. We have to pick up our kids. Everyone is subject to being victimized by this crime,” Burks said.
Burks also believes there are likely undetected skimming devices in the Metroplex waiting for consumers to swipe. And since sometimes skimming is hard to detect and prosecute, consumers have to be vigilant.
“It’s not a matter of if you are going to be victimized. It’s a matter of when. We all will. Over time, we all will,” said Burks.
Experts said consumers should report any strange activity on cards to the bank or credit card company, and to also file a report with local authorities.