Avoid This Scam on Your Next US Road Trip

PHOTO: travis houston / Shutterstock

Warning: There are thieves among us.

If you’re planning on taking a road trip absolutely anywhere in the United States, chances are you’ll be filling up your tank at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, and perhaps at a gas station that looks like it was built in the year 8 BC. This cannot be avoided. What can be avoided, however, is you getting money stolen because you swiped your card at the pump, which is now one of the most common targets for credit card skimmers.

satephoto / Shutterstock

Card skimming is a common nationwide problem and affects thousands of consumers in the US. Criminals “skim” cards by attaching an illegal card reader to the credit card slot at an ATM or gas pump. When you swipe your ATM, debit or credit card, it illegally copies the information from the magnetic strip. That info is then copied onto a blank card, abling a thief to steal money from your bank account. How do you protect yourself from this? There are several ways.

INSIDER TIPThis entire article is an insider tip, as the author has fallen prey to this scam several times (and therefore learned the lessons listed below the hard way).

 Don’t Pay at the Pump

If you’re using a card, it’s generally just a good idea to never pay at the pump because this is where criminals are most likely to hide card skimmers. This is annoying, because you have to physically walk inside of the store when there is a seemingly perfectly suitable way of paying immediately upon taking one step out of your vehicle, but it’s worth it in the long run. Otherwise, while you’re enjoying your road trip, you have no way of knowing that your information has been stolen until you receive a statement, overdraft alert, or call from one of the nice banks that alert users to “unusual spending.”

Use Credit If You Can

In general, security experts advise paying by credit card. With credit cards, you are protected by your bank’s zero-liability policies–with debit, however, the money is used then and there once the transaction is approved. You’d still be able to file a claim and (hopefully) get your money back but it would take much longer–sometimes multiple weeks (this happened to me! It’s very bad!). So, if you have the choice between debit or credit, do credit. Some pump skimming devices have the ability to steal debit card PINs as well as magnetic strip data, so thieves could possibly duplicate your card as well as use your PIN to get cash from an ATM.  

INSIDER TIPSet up fraud alerts on debit cards and credit cards–all of them.

This Doesn’t Just Happen at Pumps

It makes sense that skimming happens most often at gas pumps, sure–there isn’t an employee standing there as you do it, and it’s just easier. However, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen inside of a convenience store, as well (or restaurant, ATM, regular store, etc.). Make sure to continuously check your bank account for unusual activity, especially if you’re traveling through areas you’re not familiar with (as you do on road trips). These skimmer devices are very hard to spot (they’re very small). Just remember to be mindful of your purchases and where you’re using your card.

INSIDER TIPJust. Use. Credit.

Inspect the Card Terminal Regardless

During your road trip, you might have no other option but to swipe your card into a janky looking gas payment terminal, because, well, you’re in the middle of nowhere you would like to continue traveling to your destination. In this case, just do your best to look it over before you swipe your card. If the payment terminal doesn’t look like the other payment terminals, or it’s wobbly and loose-fitting, or if the number pads look mismatched or sloppy–it might be a skimmer. Basically, if something looks wonky, it probably is. Just be aware of the scam and monitor your money and everything will be just fine.