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Secret Service investigating big skimming scheme, how you can protect yourself at the pump

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Whether it's downtown, Midtown or East Memphis, police reports show gas station attendants and law enforcement officers are finding skimmers inside pumps all over town.

Skimmers Discovered at Two Bartlett Gas Stations

Jim Hawkins is the special agent in charge at the U.S. Secret Service Memphis Field Office.

He told WREG, "It's organized gangs, organized criminal groups, throughout the nation."

Hawkins added, "I think they're traversing the United States back and forth, so it's different groups coming through here. There'll be a different group next week and a different group the week after that."

The crooks hit up gas station after gas station.

One expert told WREG experienced thieves can get in and out at a pump in 60 seconds.

WREG spoke with a manager at a Circle K on Union Avenue, near the Medical District.

He said they replaced universal keys, that opened the pumps, with a specialty key after crooks put skimmers on their pumps several times last year.

Poinesha Barnes is a WREG employee. She recently dealt with her bank about unauthorized charges.

Barnes says she first noticed a small charge but didn't think much of it until another one popped up a day later. Then the bank called.

"They told me someone had been using my card in Metairie, Louisiana."

Barnes said the charges totaled more than $300.

"Who wants to lose $300, I worked hard for that $300!"

While Barnes can't be certain, she's tracked her steps to a downtown gas station where she learned several others got gas and later found unauthorized charges on their accounts.

She said she would have never suspected it.

"If there was a skimmer there, I didn't know."

WREG asked Agent Hawkins, "How bad is it?"

He replied, "It's pretty prevalent."

He says they've seen a big uptick in skimming cases.

In fact, WREG learned they're investigating a major case.

"We have made a couple of arrests."

Hawkins wouldn't go into details about the case, but he says what they're learning could eventually lead them to some ideas on how to better prevent skimming.

He says these days, crooks use small, wireless skimmers that are placed inside the pumps.

"Now with Bluetooth technology they can go and put the skimmer on a pump and never worry about coming back to it, can sit across the street with a laptop and just download the numbers that are right there on the skimmer."

That's exactly what Galvyn Hill says happened to a friend.

"She said there was a truck in front of her, as soon as she pulled out her card, that truck had pulled out his phone and so she followed the truck and they did it at the next gas station and then she noticed on her bank account that they had drafted her account."

Hawkins says once crooks have the numbers, they sell them in underground chat rooms.

He said the data is often re-encoded and loaded onto empty gift cards or used to shop online.

Hawkins explained, "We're trying to get out and educate the public, the gas station owners, the attendants, the clerks there, exactly what to look for."

Protection from Gas Pump Skimmers:

Check for tamper-proof tape: Check for a small strip of tape at the pump. While not every pump has tape, many companies make their own, and it includes a bar code and number. Once the tape is ripped, it reads "void" or "open."

Hawkins says, "That way you can at least tell if the machine has been tampered with."

Look for Secret Service tape: The Secret Service is giving out blue tape that reads, "U.S. Secret Service Mid-South Electronic Crimes Task Force" to gas stations that have been hit multiple times.

Check for newer pumps, with encrypted key pads: Experts say these are the hardest for crooks to crack, so they usually don't try. The key pads have buttons that are often raised, and some of the pumps play videos.

Avoid outside pumps: Thieves target those first because it's easy to get in and out quickly without being seen.

Location, Location, Location: Scammers seem to be hitting major thoroughfares, gas stations off the Poplar corridor and especially those close to the interstate.

"It gives them convenient access to hit a gas station and get back on the road and get out of here before anybody notices anything," said Hawkins.

Wiggling the card reader may not help: Since most of the recent cases involved skimmers placed inside pumps, thieves don't have to use duplicate card readers that cover the original, so unless it's an ATM, Hawkins says that advice is slightly outdated.

Use a cash or a credit card: Some consumers, including Barnes, are protecting themselves the old fashioned way, by paying with cash.

"I go in, take my cash, prepay, say I want $40 on the pump," said Barnes.

Contact authorities: Most of the police reports WREG read were filed by gas station owners/managers, or private companies that maintain pumps. Lots of individuals deal directly with their banks but don't follow up with a police report. While some don't know the origin of the breach, for those who do, filing a report could provide more details on larger skimming rings like the one currently being investigated.

Gas stations were supposed to be chip-compliant by October of this year, but that's been pushed to 2020. Experts say that should provide another layer of protection.

Hawkins also said it's important for gas stations to routinely check the pumps and get away from using universal keys.