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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Thieves installed data-collection devices inside the pumps at several Palm Beach County gas stations this summer, and the machinery copied and stored customers' information, reported the Orlando Sun-Sentinal.
"It's such a burgeoning area of fraud," said special agent Victor Johnson of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "It's part of the new computer age, and it's only in its infancy."
The fraud involves an electronic "skimmer" that takes information from credit and debit cards while victims are filling their gas tanks. At least a dozen victims have been identified in Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter, police said.
The scheme works this way: Thieves put a data-collection device inside the pump, near the keypad and card reader. The device has two computer ribbons, including one that takes information from the keypad, such as debit card access numbers. Another clicks into the access port where credit and debit cards are placed to capture other account information. Later, the thieves return, retrieve the device, download the information into a personal computer and then transfer the data onto fake cards with magnetic strips, such as electronic hotel keys.
Once a Visa or MasterCard logo is silk-screened onto the card, the thieves have a working replica of the credit or debit card. The scam works because the skimmer can easily be put inside a gas pump. Access to the pump is relatively easy, officials said. Many pumps use common keys that are easily duplicated.
Gas-pump keys are "the same keys you'd use for your shed or garage doors," said Eric Hamilton, chief of the state's Bureau of Petroleum Inspection. Thieves can get more individual keys from disgruntled employees or buy them on the Internet.
Convenience is the reason for the common keys, officials said. It's easier for oil companies, pump manufacturers and gas stations if they have common keys.
The U.S. Secret Service, credit card manufacturers, gas station operators and Florida law enforcement agencies have teamed up to stem the fraud. Officials recommend consumers take the following precautions to protect themselves:
* Use credit cards instead of debit cards. It's easier to recoup credit losses than money lost from a checking account.
* Retain receipts and compare them to your statements. If able, go online to check your account frequently.
* Contact your credit card company or bank immediately if any suspicious charges appear. If it's fraud, contact local police.