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Birmingham — It’s becoming clear the small electronic devices — called skimmers — that steal credit card information from consumers at gas pumps are a wider problem in Michigan than previously suspected.

And as residents begin making their holiday travel plans, government and banking officials are urging precautions to keep personal financial information safe.

Since August, Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has been on the hunt for the devices, which can fit into the palm of a hand. Criminals surreptitiously insert them inside gasoline pumps, and each time a card is swiped, the skimmer copies the data. Later, the criminals return to open up the pump and remove the device, now full of data.

This week, three additional skimmers were detected, including one at a Birmingham gas station — the first to turn up in southeastern Michigan.

Birmingham police responded to a call Tuesday morning from the Mobil station at the corner of East Maple and North Adams. An attendant had been summoned to look at a malfunctioning gas pump and discovered a “black-taped credit card skimmer had been attached and the speed pass cord had been disconnected,” the police report reads. The station’s owner indicated this wasn’t the first time such a device had been placed in one of the pumps.

Skimmers also turned up in Coldwater on Tuesday and Grand Blanc on Thursday. State officials estimate Michigan has more than 100,000 gas pumps across the upper and lower peninsulas but just over a dozen inspectors to check them, in addition to other duties. They have found 21 skimmers.

“The identification of credit card skimmers in Michigan is unprecedented ... but MDARD is continuing to look for, locate and remove these ... devices from commerce,” said Jennifer Holton, a department spokeswoman. “It has added it to our daily inspection protocols for our 14 Weights and Measures inspectors, who are responsible for inspecting the state’s more than 100,000 gas pumps.”

Inserting and removing skimmers is, on the surface, a brazen act. It requires a key to access the inside of the pump and the know-how to attach the device. But Holton said surveillance tapes indicate criminals can easily pull off the feat in under a minute. And once they have personal financial information, the criminals either create credit card replicas or use the data to purchase gift cards.

Skills aside, several alleged skimmer-using criminals have been caught by law enforcement in recent months. A federal complaint filed by the FBI late last month outlined a scheme involving nine people charged with using the devices at multiple locations around the state.

“Within days of using their cards to purchase gasoline, account holders would notice unauthorized charges being made against their credit accounts at retail outlets such as Meijer and Wal-Mart, typically for the purchase of stored-value cards at self-checkout lanes,” the complaint reads.

“Loss-prevention officers at the banks that held the accounts were then able to determine that the common thread running between the compromised accounts was that the account holders had all purchased gasoline at the same pumps at the same gas stations shortly before the unauthorized purchases were made.”

Federal investigations in September resulted in charges against nine people tied to skimming devices in Grand Rapids and Grand Ledge. Searches of people, vehicles and hotel rooms typically turned up dozens of gift cards, re-encoded credit cards, laptop computers, pump keys and, occasionally, skimmers.

Two of the men arrested claimed to have been sent to Michigan by a person based in Texas “for the purpose of installing skimmers on gas-station pumps.”

When skimmers copy the information from a credit card, that information can be used to wreak havoc on personal financial accounts. The liability in such cases falls to the banks issuing the cards. It’s one of the reasons banks are moving toward cards with embedded microchips. But even that technology will likely have a limited period of effectiveness.

“That chip will prevent a skimmer device from working at a gas pump ...,” said David Worthams, policy director for the Michigan Bankers Association. “But the people making these skimmer devices always have something new up their sleeve. Eventually, they’ll have some device that figures out the logarithm the chip (is using).”

State officials suggest motorists use the following precautions:

If something at the pump does not look right, such as a security sticker that’s been tampered with, alert the store clerk and pay for the gas inside.

Try to use pumps closer to the store that are within sight of the clerk.

Regularly check bank accounts to spot unauthorized charges.

Worthams also suggested consumers avoid using pumps at gas stations that close for the night. Pumps that are not supervised 24 hours a day are more likely to be targets of skimmers, he said. In addition, credit cards carry less risk than debit cards, which provide criminals with access to more of your money.

jlynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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