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Dozens of frauds linked to gas station skimmer

- Thefts widespread


Published: March 29, 2012

AS REPORTS continue to pour in of credit card fraud resulting from multiple incidents of skimming at a Pacific Grove gas station, police are trying to determine the extent of the damage and find out who had placed the little devices — which capture customers’ credit card and debit card information — on a particular gas pump at the Union 76 on Forest Avenue on at least three separate occasions.

“You don’t know how much damage is done until weeks, if not months later,” said Pacific Grove Police Cmdr. John Miller. “You don’t know how many cards were taken and then used.”

Since late February, more than two dozen people have reported fraudulent use of credit-card numbers they might have used at the station, where the pump targeted by thieves was located out of view of the station’s security camera, according to Miller.

More victims were reported after previous incidents, with police discovering two skimmers on the gas pump last December and suspecting another had been placed there after additional reports came in in February. Last month, an employee at the station found one of the gadgets during a routine check, according to Miller.

“The skimmer that was recovered in March was because they were doing daily inspections of the machine,” he said. “It wasn’t like we were getting daily reports like we were back in February, when we ran up there and said to open their machines.”

Police didn’t find a device then, so presumably the thieves got away with the stolen information.

The skimmer found in March didn’t have the ability to transmit its stolen data for remote pickup, which means the thief would have to physically retrieve it to obtain the credit card numbers he was stealing. Other devices do have wireless capability — usually by Bluetooth.

Using a skimmer that doesn’t have wireless capability means the thief has to “open the gas pump, and place it on the circuit board, and then open the machine and remove it to download all the data,” Miller said.

Victims have reported credit-card theft linked to the Union 76 almost daily since Feb. 27. Investigators are in the process of compiling information from reports in P.G., as well as from police departments in other jurisdictions.

“Some of those others have people in custody for fraudulent use of credit cards — across the United States, and a lot in Southern California,” he said. “We received one call from Pennsylvania.”

The fraud reports and arrests are so widespread because identity thieves sell victims’ personal information via online clearinghouses, according to Miller.

“It’s a black-market situation,” he said. “Once somebody has that information, they can sell it or distribute it via the black market.”

PGPD also requested help from a high-tech task force created by the state Department of Justice called REACT — the Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team. That partnership of local, state and federal agencies and the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office doesn’t typically involve itself in crimes on the Monterey Peninsula, according to Miller, “but we’ve reached out to them, and they’ve been helpful.”

“It’s a very specialized and very expensive part of law enforcement, staying abreast of the technology that changes by the moment,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the station’s owners are trying to reduce further incidents of credit-card theft.

“Their in-place security measures were lacking, and they’re working on that — they’re installing more cameras and changed the locks on the machines,” Miller said. “They were ID’d as an easy target. Obviously, as business owners, they don’t like being identified with this type of activity.”