Phillips: Debit cards face special risk at gasoline pumps

Phillips: Debit cards face special risk at gasoline pumps

February 13th, 2010 by Ellen Phillips in Business Ellen Phillips

Q: I swiped my debit card to pay for a recent tank of gas and almost immediately learned over $200 was stolen from my bank account. The police told me crooks had "skimmed" my card that gave them access to my account. I learned a hard lesson that maybe your readers need to know about. -- Tina Targeted

A: Dear Ms. Targeted: At the risk of sounding sarcastic, you're actually pretty lucky your crook was more polite than most. Unless your bank account contained only the $200, be glad Mr. or Ms. Lawbreaker left behind even a bit of money.

In the past, I've written about scammers with their little electronic devices that steal everything from ATMs to credit card information to your identity. This newer designate -- "skimmers" -- comes from the verb skim, which literally means (1) to read quickly or (2) to take from the top. This type of skimmer is a teeny card reader that actually fits inside the gas pump and nobody notices them, neither customers nor employees.

According to FBI statistics, debit cards account for well over half of all "plastic" purchases; moreover, recovering funds stolen from our bank accounts via a debit card is far more difficult than not paying for larcenous transactions on a credit card (as I continually tell my sister).

Because gas pumps usually aren't attended, it becomes extremely easy for a potential thief to pop a skimmer into the pump without notice. Even worse, since gas pump manufacturers number only two or three, if Terry Thief possesses a key to open just one pump, he can also open other pumps and different stations.

Unfortunately, here's where the scenario gets even scarier. Because a lot of pumps are older, PINs aren't encrypted. When the Lawbreaker gets a hold of your debit card information, all they need to do is make a fake card, fast track to an ATM and empty your bank account, faster than you can holler, "Stop, thief!"

While researching this topic, I came across a noteworthy tip to avoid PIN pilfering so listen up, dear sister (and everyone else): If you absolutely must use your debit card to pump gas on the outside of the station, choose the "credit" prompt on the screen. The gasoline purchase still deducts from your bank account but, instead, it's processed through a credit card network. By following this pointer, you're only out $50 liability for fraud as opposed to up to $500 if you don't report the loss within two days. My final suggestion? Treat your PIN as vigilantly as you do your Social Security number.

Tax Tip: Individuals and businesses can take a deduction for donations given to charities providing relief to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. Donations of money or property given between Jan. 12 and Feb. 28, qualify for this retroactive deduction. Thus, taxpayers have the option to deduct these charitable contributions on either our 2009 returns or on the 2010 returns. For more about this special treatment, see New Tax Break for Contributions to Haiti Earthquake Relief on the IRS Web site.

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears on Saturdays in the Business section of the paper. An expanded version is at under Local Business. E-mail her at