Credit card skimming: how it happens, how to protect yourself

Credit card skimming: how it happens, how to protect yourself »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — It's a rip-off that's growing, and experts have advice on how to protect your wallet. The new crime is called credit card skimming, and there are things to watch out for.

"I've heard about that, it happened to my sister," Bakersfield resident Kristina Taverner said. "Someone used their information and shopped down in L.A. with her credit card."

In July, Eyewitness News discovered a rash of these crimes in the Tehachapi area. Some 90 bank customers were victims of bank card fraud. They have plenty of company.

"Skimming, a form of high-tech financial fraud, is on the rise worldwide," reads a statement from the Central California Better Business Bureau. "It relies on sophisticated data-reading electronics to copy the magnetic strip information from your credit card or debit card."

The Bakersfield Police Department has also been on the lookout for this growing crime. Crime prevention unit spokeswoman Carina Ortiz said from time to time officers will see a spike in the work of these crooks.

"They'll just hammer the heck out of a certain location," Ortiz said. She said the criminals will find the place and opportunity to install the "skimmer" devices.

"They're basically little machines that are attached, and as people are using their cards, they're capturing their information," Ortiz explained.

She agreed with the BBB: ATM machines and gas station pumps are the most likely targets.

"Gas stations may be the most vulnerable outposts," the BBB warning says. "Pumps are largely automated and often unattended, giving criminals plenty of opportunity to embed skimming devices in them late at night."

The same goes for ATM machines that are exposed and unattended.

The BBB says if a customer thinks a machine may be compromised, you can run a finger along the card slot to check whether anything feels loose or mismatched. If that's the case, don't use that machine, and report the situation.

Ortiz had another tip.

"It's better to use the one that's a little bit closer to the store, facing the store," she said.

Those pumps are visible to workers inside the gas station and less likely to be tampered with. She also advised looking to see if any machine looks different; that could be another sign that a skimmer could have been slipped into it.

One gas station owner in Bakersfield said their pumps have a special type of card slot, which is harder for a criminal to slip a skimmer into. He also pointed to security cameras aimed at the machines where customers use their cards.

Ortiz said those security measures help, but advised that customers shouldn't rely on any one precaution.

"We really need to make sure that we're always aware of our surroundings, we're always paying attention," she said.

In the big Tehachapi case, both Kern County deputies and Tehachapi police investigated. Eyewitness News discovered at least six different banks had customers reporting the fraud. But, authorities couldn't track down where or how the customer information was being stolen.

"We've had victims who've had their card copied, or the information copied, while they were out of state and weren't using their card," Sheriff's Sgt. Rick Wood had said.

On Thursday, Wood said it's still not known how all the information was compromised.

Tehachapi Police Chief Jeff Kermode told Eyewitness News the various bank fraud departments also worked on the case.

The BBB has another piece of advice. It says it's safer to use a credit card than debit card at the most vulnerable locations.

Credit card networks do a good job of detecting and stopping fraud quickly.

"Credit card consumers are often covered by zero-liability programs, but with debit cards that may not be the case, depending on your bank," the BBB warning continues.

Ortiz said credit cards may also require a zip code for verification, which can be safer. Debit cards may require a pin number, but the skimmers can also steal that.

"A lot of times, I'll chose a credit card to use, because I've heard that, too," Taft resident Julia Barnes said on Thursday. She's never been ripped off like this, but knows friends who have.

"It was an odd thing, from another country, and the only time she used her card was at a gas station, a local gas station," Barnes said.

The experts say restaurants can be another trouble spot for this fraud. There's more risk any time a customer's card is being used out of their sight.

They have one more piece of advice: Customers should check their credit and debit accounts frequently, to check for any charges they didn't authorize.