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Some Armstrong County gas stations hit by 'skimmer' credit card thefts

Chuck Biedka
| Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, 6:39 p.m.
These comparisons show security strips on gas pumps that are untouched, and tampered with. Convenience stores and gas stations are taking steps to fight criminals who install skimmers on the credit card ports.
National Association of Convenience Stores
These comparisons show security strips on gas pumps that are untouched, and tampered with. Convenience stores and gas stations are taking steps to fight criminals who install skimmers on the credit card ports.
This  type of skimmer is slipped into some gas pumps to replace legitimate card ports, for illegal data siphoning.
Source: Pennsylvania State Police
This type of skimmer is slipped into some gas pumps to replace legitimate card ports, for illegal data siphoning.

The search is on for whoever installed “skimmers” on some gasoline pumps to steal credit or debit card information in Armstrong and at least two other counties, state police said.

Troopers are investigating complaints from at least a dozen customers at gas stations near Kittanning, Elderton and Rayburn in Armstrong County.

Similar cases are being investigated by troopers and police at Indiana and Greensburg, said Sgt. Rocco Russo, commander of the state police's Kittanning station.

Among other earlier skimming incidents were those reported in Penn Hills , Carnegie , Plum and South Fayette .

The skimmers are small, illegal card reading devices installed on gas pumps. Some are exposed on the outside of the pump but designed to appear like they are part of the payment mechanism. Others fit inside the real machine.

State police aren't yet identifying which stations were involved so not to damage business for stations or stores that were subject to theft, the sergeant said.

This type of theft is a problem for the customer whose information was compromised and for the store's reputation, said Jeff Lenard, a vice president for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

He said skimmers are popping up almost any place gas pumps or ATMs are in operation.

Gas pumps are often targeted because each day about 39 millions Americans fill their tanks, the trade group estimates.

Skimmers are about 2 inches wide and made to blend in. Since they can be overlooked, it's always a good idea to checking credit card balances, Russo said.

Older skimmers need to be retrieved and data unloaded. However, Bluetooth technology enables crooks to access information remotely, the sergeant said.

The investigation is still under way. and it was unclear which level of technology was used.

At state police headquarters, spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said if a suspicious expense appears on a credit or debit card account, contact the bank and police.

“Watch your bank statement. Take a proactive role for any unusual activity,” he said.

“I know some people get busy and they toss bank statements into a stack or the shredder pile. I use phone apps to check my accounts. You can, too,” Tarkowski said.

Sometimes the unusual amount is relatively small and the criminal makes more small buys hoping that the cardholder won't notice.

State Bureau of Weights and Measures staff check gas pumps for accuracy and, more and more, to look for skimmers, said William R. Nichols, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture that oversees these inspectors.

The state's Bank Commission and Attorney General's Office websites have report forms for skimming victims.

Businesses also are addressing the problem.

Sheetz says it uses multiple approaches to protect customer data security, spokesman Nick Ruffner said.

Outside at gasoline pumps, the company replaces the pump locks that come with the machine with a propriety lock. Keys aren't kept at the store.

Employees regularly look for tampering at the pumps and as well as ATMs inside. The company uses a “red, hockey puck-looking overlay as well,” Ruffner said. “If the overlay is covered or broken, we know someone has tampered.

The company also uses surveillance cameras.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711, cbiedka@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ChuckBiedka.

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